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Meet the Next Louis Armstrong

People uncowed by the tyranny of history should take up the jazz trumpet. Others would be smart to try another instrument—or avoid music, where the specter of the past is always looming, and seems to loom larger and larger in the Youtube era.

In jazz, the trumpet has a privileged status, and one of the privileges it carries is that of terrorizing expectations, by way of association with the music’s past masters. After all, the canonical first giant of jazz, Louis Armstrong, played the trumpet (or its sister instrument, the cornet), as did his fellow early innovators King Oliver and Bix Beiderbecke. If we think of any sound as the birth-cry of jazz, we think of the sound of Armstrong’s brass solos. As the music mutated over a hundred years’ time, trumpeters continued to make pivotal innovations and key contributions to jazz culture: Dizzy Gillespie, who with saxophonist Charlie Parker led bebop’s expansion of jazz’s harmonic vocabulary; Miles Davis, who, in badass high style, led the birth of the cool; Wynton Marsalis, who has done more than any musician of our time to elevate jazz’s stature in the public eye; and Dave Douglas, the exemplar of turn-of-the-21st-century eclecticism. Today, one of the most celebrated musicians in jazz is once again a trumpeter, Ambrose Akinmusire. He is working—composing, recording (for Blue Note, which last year released his debut album for the label, When the Heart Emerges Glistening), and playing—under the pressure of preposterous expectations.

I caught him in a New York club, the Jazz Standard, with his quartet last week, and the music was both cogent and emotive, virtuosic but obedient to no single tradition. The compositions were dense, varied in form, and, most extraordinarily, downright tuneful. Akinmusire, who turned 30 on May 1, has a pop songwriter’s knack for melody and no fear of beauty. His playing is urgent, fiery, alive—yet formally sound and often lovely. To say at this point in his career that Akinmusire is the 21st-century successor to the heritage of Armstrong, Gillespie, and other giants of the jazz trumpet would be preposterous, of course. But I’ll say it anyway.