Review: Ambrose Akinmusire and Samara Joy at SeixalJazz 2022
By Perry Tannenbaum
At SeixalJazz, across the graceful April 25th Suspension Bridge from Lisbon, Portugal’s renowned capital, the festival must go on. The last couple of pandemic editions, in annual two-meters-apart format, had been muted echoes of the expansive new direction SeixalJazz had taken in 2019, when Kenny Barron, Ralph Towner, Peter Bernstein, and the John Beasley Monk’estra had all been headliners – while afternoon and latenight concerts had been added at separate venues.
After a strategic retreat to an all-Portuguese lineup in 2020, the 2021 festival celebrated its 25th anniversary with a stellar smorgasbord for its socially-distanced audience, including Seamus Blake, Melissa Aldana, Ted Nash, and a high-powered Billy Hart Quartet that slipped in Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson. But it was SJ 2022 that turned on the burners full blast once again at the Municipal Auditorium of the Seixal Cultural Forum, discarding the social-distancing of previous years and restoring the alternate slate of free-admission “Clube” programming at the Sociedade Filarmónica Democrática.
Monty Alexander, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Samara Joy were the big names ready to cook at the Municipal. Breaking our own personal travel bans, my wife Sue and I had already shortlisted Portugal as an attractive autumn destination. Seeing Joy perform with guitarist Pasquale Grasso in August, at Charlotte’s Middle C Jazz Club, pretty much cinched our decision. The opportunity to also see Akinmusire, whose albums I had supported on multiple JazzTimes Critics Picks lists in past years, made the closing weekend at SeixalJazz even more irresistible.
If that weren’t enough, the 10:00pm starting time for all Municipal Auditorium concerts left us free to tour as we wished during daylight hours without being rushed or constricted in our evening dining choices. Across the Tagus River from Lisbon, atop an imposing slope overlooking the shore, the Municipal sports a hillside parking lot that could likely accommodate an audience of 1000. We were rather surprised when the hall, unlike most festival spaces we’ve experienced, had a cozy capacity of 400 or less – completely sold out on both nights we attended.
Akinmusire was actually more familiar with the Municipal than we were, having played on closing night of SeixalJazz 2014 with two other members of his current quartet, pianist Sam Harris and drummer Justin Brown. Missing in action from that gig eight years ago were tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Harish Raghavan, staples in the trumpeter’s formative years, replaced by Joe Sanders wielding the upright.
So the rapport between Akinmusire’s bandmates – and between the band and their festival audience – figured to be solid. Knowing each other for more than 20 years, the returning members of the Akinmusire Quartet could hearken back to the leader’s earliest recordings, play off on the tender spot of every calloused moment, Ambrose’s latest release, and even play a new composition for the first time. Adding to the band’s comfort level, no doubt, the acoustics and the sound crew at the Municipal quickly proved to be admirable, and the audience’s energy and courtesy were outstanding.
While the sound of Akinmusire’s band put me in mind of the Miles Davis Quintet that astounded me at the Village Vanguard in the mid-1960s, with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in the lineup, the shape of the compositions and the composer’s arrangements were freer in form. Meters, tempos, moods, and dynamics could all change abruptly during each piece on multiple occasions. Except perhaps for Sanders’ occasional bass solos, bars and choruses seemed to be an arcane concept when the soloing players took the spotlight.
Nor did Harris or Brown diligently withdraw into accompaniment when handing off the lead to each other – or even when Akinmusire was had the reins. Because Harris and/or Brown were so persistently expressive instead of subordinating themselves, the very definition of soloing was often in flux as each arrangement organically unfolded. It was as if all were so eagerly joining in on a narrative – and so comfortable with each other – that nobody ever hesitated to speak up or interrupt.
Yet the Quartet’s volatile brew never gave any sign of devolving into cacophonous chaos. Most freely expressive was Akinmusire, growling, squealing, whining, sighing, or ranting – angrily or urgently or plaintively – with his horn. Nearly always, he had the last word, more like a soliloquy than a cadenza. Pieces often seemed to end after a moment of reflection when Ambrose decided he had said exactly enough.
The crowd was only thrown once by the Quartet, three pieces into the concert, when a cooldown Akinmusire offering was followed by a titanic solo by Brown. It was so epic that the hall burst into wild applause when the drummer simply paused for a breath and a mood shift – followed by a briefer trumpet solo crackling with fury. “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous),” for composer and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell, was the most cerebral and rigidly arranged nugget on the playlist, showcasing Harris in a wonderfully thoughtful vein.
That provided a perfect segue to Akinmusire immersing us in his ballad mode with “Roy” for trumpet great Roy Hargrove, also from the most recent album but in a live version that was more extended and virtuosic. Not having seen Ambrose playing live before – or even on YouTube, I’ll confess – I was more than a little surprised that this brass player, unlike Wynton Marsalis or Wycliffe Gordon, didn’t bring a collection of mutes, plungers, or assorted doodads onstage to help him produce that wide array of signature sounds he perfected.
And of course, I was impressed. Even Miles had his famed Harmon mute in his arsenal.
Nestled at the bottom of the hilltop commanded by the Municipal Auditorium, a gaudy riverboat with a gangway leading down to it stood gleaming on the shore. Our first night at SeixalJazz, we mistook the riverboat for the ferry from Lisbon, which had its last run of the night when festival concerts began. As it turned out, the posh vessel was the Lisboa à Vista, a truly fine seafood restaurant where we had booked reservations for the following night – and where we first encountered Samara Joy and her band, already seated at the table next to ours.
My wife recognized her first, but I soon felt compelled to confront jazz’s newest diva with a question that had been nagging at me all the way across the Atlantic. Since Joy had favored us back in August with a song she had written in French for a previous concert abroad, could I get a scoop on a new song she had written in Portuguese?
Not quite. Joy hadn’t written a song in Portuguese for tonight, but she assured us that she would be singing one.
Joy’s career has certainly been in high gear over the past few months, so I’ve needed to shift into overdrive just to keep up with the news. At Middle C, she was signing pre-release copies of Linger Awhile, and eight weeks later when she sang at Seixal, the new album was rapidly climbing the charts. By the time we returned stateside, Linger Awhile was #1 on the Jazz Week airplay chart. Two Grammy nominations came in shortly afterwards, including Best New Artist, and word of a seven-city Big Band Holidays tour with the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra was posted online, to be followed with a stint on the 2023 Jazz Cruise.
At the Municipal, the contour of Joy’s set was very much as it had been back in North Carolina, about half of the songs from her two albums, leaving her plenty of space for pleasant surprises – and leaving us plenty of additional delights to discover in her new album if we hadn’t heard it. Unlike Akinmusire (one Grammy nom, we should mention), who started off full steam and never let up except for his well-placed but no-less-intense balladry, Joy started off at a high level, less chatty and playful than she had been at Middle C, but there was a gradual build in the second half of her set list.
Once again, “Can’t Get Out of This Mood” was near the beginning of the program, unmistakably echoing the Sarah Vaughan arrangement from her landmark In Hi-Fi album of 1950. This time, pianist Ben Paterson instead of Grasso was Joy’s prime collaborator, so the performance was far closer to the sound of the Grammy-nominated studio version. On the other hand, Grasso – like Paterson, a major voice on Linger Awhile – had played the intro and instrumental solo on “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew)” where Joy has added fresh lyric to Fats Navarro’s 1947 solo on the Tadd Dameron original. So that tune got a fresh twist in Seixal, with a Euro edge as French bassist Mathias Allamane and Danish drummer Malte Arndal rounded out Joy’s rhythm.
“’Round Midnight” has a bigger horn arrangement in the studio version, so I preferred the intimacy that Joy established with her audience in both of her live performances here and abroad, though I’d be eager to hear a J@LC arrangement. The other Monk tune, with Joy’s vocalese on “San Francisco Holiday (Don’t Worry Now),” hasn’t been recorded yet. Both Grasso and Paterson were exemplary when I heard them, so it will be interesting to see which one Joy will choose for her studio take.
With his work on “If You Never Fall in Love With Me,” swung with Joy more confidently and energetically than “This Mood,” Paterson made his case that the vocalist’s eponymous debut album, cut exclusively with Grasso’s trio, could have benefitted from his presence. The lingering rush of adrenalin from that uptempo romp provided a perfect moment for Joy to spring her Portuguese surprise, a lyrical tribute to Lisbon’s own “Queen of Fado,” Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999).
Not attempting to emulate the fadista’s oft-imitated style, Joy charmed her audience with her sincerity, humility, and individuality. Clearly, she was buoyed by their response, for after rocking the house with a newly-minted “Blues in Five,” Joy ripped my heart out with the best “Guess Who I Saw Today” I’ve heard from her, better than the cut on Linger Awhile and better than her Middle C encore. I can’t honestly say the same about her rendition of the title song: it flashes by so quickly every time, like lightning – ironically, the shortest track on both Joy’s and Sassy Sarah’s Linger Awhile albums.
The truest measure Joy’s growth over the past couple of years – she’s still only a tender 22! – was her valedictory rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” with multiple levels of depth beyond what you’ll hear on the opening track of last year’s Samara Joy debut. Coupled with her extraordinary voice and command, she seems to possess an unquenchable urge to seek out the purest essence of the music and the lyrics she sings.
Photos by Perry Tannenbaum