2023 Monterey Jazz Festival Commission Artist
Featuring Oumou Sangaré
During his 15-year career, Ambrose Akinmusire has paradoxically situated himself in both the center and the periphery of jazz, most recently emerging in classical and hip hop circles. He’s on a perpetual quest for new paradigms, masterfully weaving inspiration from other genres, arts, and life in general into compositions that are as poetic and graceful as they are bold and unflinching. His unorthodox approach to sound and composition make him a regular on critics polls and have earned him earned him grants and commissions from the Doris Duke Foundation, the MAP Fund, the Kennedy Center, and the Berlin and Monterey Jazz festivals. While Akinmusire continues to garner accolades, his reach is always beyond—himself, his instrument, genre, form, preconceived notions, and anything else imposing limitations.
Motivated primarily by the spiritual and practical value of art, Akinmusire wants to remove the wall of erudition surrounding his music. He aspires to create richly textured emotional landscapes that tell the stories of the community, record the time, and change the standard. While committed to continuing the lineage of black invention and innovation, he manages to honor tradition without being stifled by it.
Born and raised in Oakland, California, Ambrose Akinmusire (pronounced ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee) was a member of the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble when he caught the attention of saxophonist Steve Coleman. Akinmusire was asked to join Coleman’s Five Elements, embarking on a European tour when he was just a 19-year-old student at the Manhattan School of Music. After returning to the West Coast to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Southern California, Akinmusire went on to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, where he studied with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard.
In 2007 Akinmusire won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, decided by a panel of judges that included Blanchard, Quincy Jones, Herb Alpert, Hugh Masekela, Clark Terry and Roy Hargrove. That year Akinmusire also won the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and released his debut album Prelude…To Cora on the Fresh Sound label. He moved back to New York and began performing with the likes of Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks, Esperanza Spalding and Jason Moran. It was also during this time that he first caught the attention of another discerning listener, Bruce Lundvall, President of Blue Note Records.
He has proven himself an artist of rare ability and wide-ranging aesthetic interests on his Blue Note albums When the Heart Emerges Glistening (2011), the imagined savior is far easier to paint (2014), A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (2017), and Origami Harvest (2018). With on the tender spot of every calloused moment (2020), Akinmusire reaches a new pinnacle with his quartet of longtime bandmates – Sam Harris (piano), Harish Raghavan (bass), and Justin Brown (drums) – on an album of gorgeous, shape-shifting art that is a study of the blues in a contemporary context.
On June 22, 2023, Akinmusire released Beauty is Enough, an improvised solo trumpet album on his own Origami Harvest label that was recorded at the French Gothic cathedral Saint-Eustache in Paris.
Akinmusire has a long relationship with Monterey. As a teen growing up in Oakland, he was a two-time member of the Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. Five years after winning the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, he returned as Monterey’s 2012 Artist-in-Residence. In 2013, he toured with the Monterey Jazz All-Stars, and was back in 2015 as MJF’s Commission Artist when he premiered The Forgotten Places.
Since the release of her debut album in 1989, there’s been no respite for the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré. Notable waymarks on her rich and fruitful journey include some of the most definitive recordings in the history of contemporary African music, all released on the World Circuit label: in 1993, in 1996 and in 2009, the latter nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Music Album category. Numerous international tours and performances on prestigious stages such as the Sydney Opera House, London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan complete this roll of honour.
Timbuktu, the first release on her own Oumsang label, is the latest act in this unparalleled musical epic, one that World Circuit has become associated with once again. It consecrates this artist who rose up from the poor neighbourhoods of Bamako to become a global superstar and universally admired feminist icon. With the powerful aura of a Grace Jones, black transgressive icon, Oumou has long since broken through the barriers that separate continents and musical styles. She was once invited by Alicia Keys to sing a duet on TV, and today, she gets held up as an example by artists as hefty as Aya Nakamura, who dedicated the song "Oumou Sangare" to her in 2017, or Beyoncé, who sampled one of Oumou’s most famous creations, "Diaraby Néné," for her song "Mood 4 Eva," which was included in the soundtrack of the film The Lion King.
Born in Bamako on February 2, 1968, Oumou Sangaré is the eldest daughter of a Fulani family from the Wassoulou region of southern Mali. Her mother, Aminata Diakité, was a singer, and so was her grandmother Noumouténé. Oumou barely knew her father, Diari Sangaré , who left the family home when Oumou was two years old. Having been abandoned in this way, her mother Aminata became a market trader to keep her four children alive. Oumou would help her by selling little sachets of water in the street. She got into the habit of following her mother to the soumous (nuptial or baptismal ceremonies held in the street) where Aminata would sing to appreciative crowds. Oumou soon earned herself a portion of that prestige, thanks to the clarity and strength of a voice that, gushing forth from the body of a child, enchanted its audience. Then, during an inter-school competition where Oumou was representing her school in the Daoudabougou neighbourhood, she got the chance to hog all the glory by singing in front of 3,000 people at the Omnisports Stadium in Bamako and winning first prize.
She already had a long career behind her when, aged 18, she went to Abidjan to record her first cassette, produced by Abdoulaye Samassa (who had to offer her a car to entice her into the studio). Re-released on CD and vinyl by World Circuit 2016, the cassette, entitled Moussolou ("the women" in Bambara), sold more than 250,000 copies on its first release, a record that remains unbeaten in West Africa. Though this feat can partly be explained by the highly danceable nature of Wassoulou music, the most important elements were the lyrics that are sung, sometimes roared, by this young lioness who had to struggle from an early age to survive.
Standing up with ardent passion against the abuses of a patriarchal tradition that sanctions polygamy, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, Oumou became the overnight face of a feminist cause that never had any kind of foothold in this part of the world before she came along. Her career and her recordings remained branded by these two salient dimensions: being a woman and coming from a social background that made her singularly sensitive to all forms of injustice. Timbuktu is a case in point. Take "Gniani Sara" (literally ‘the reward of suffering’), which speaks of Oumou’s never-ending struggle for the betterment of the female condition. “I dared to tackle this subject first, before anyone else, and even risked my life doing it,” she says today. “My reward was to awaken consciences, especially among the younger generation. To see Aya Nakamura or Beyoncé cite me as an example is worth all the prizes and all the distinctions in the world. —Francis Dordor, with translation by Andy Morgan