.Ambrose Akinmusire and Rafiq Bhatia Join Forces for Winter Fest

Guitarist Rafiq Bhatia joins the Oakland trumpeter at the Tabard Theatre

San Jose Jazz’s “Counterpoint with Ukraine” programming for this year’s Winter Fest has provided an exhilarating education for even the most sophisticated music fans, introducing a bevy of boundary-pushing improvisers who’ve never performed before in the United States.

Kyiv’s thriving jazz scene, however, is not news to Berkeley trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire.

“Ukraine is very dear to my heart,” he says.

Akinmusire started forging relationships with musicians and audiences in the embattled Eastern European nation long before Russia’s invasion last year. Ukrainian festival producer Olga Bekenshtein, who co-curated Winter Fest, first booked Akinmusire for a Kyiv concert and master class eight years ago, “where the young musicians kept asking such deep, thoughtful questions,” he recalls.

“The concert was packed and the energy was like a rock concert. I’ve been back twice more and become friends with a lot of people. I can’t believe these guys are here! It’s so strange. I also have a lot of students from Ukraine,” like trumpeter Yakiv Tsvietinskyi, who performs the music of Roy Hargrove March 3 with the SJZ Collective

When Bekenshtein asked Akinmusire to play Winter Fest he didn’t hesitate. Keeping in the spirit of her Am I Jazz? festival, he figured it was an ideal opportunity to deepen his relationship with Rafiq Bhatia, a celebrated producer, guitarist and sound designer with whom he joins forces Sunday at Tabard Theater.

Since meeting several years ago at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity they’ve worked together in a few situations with pianist/composer Vijay Iyer, but Akinmusire has been particularly impressed by Bhatia’s work as a producer. 

“His CDs are amazing sonically,” he says, describing the dreamscape deconstructions of the American Songbook on 2020 EP Standards Vol. 1 as “mindblowing.”

So what are they going to be presenting on their first duo encounter? 

“I have no idea,” Akinmusire admits. “We’ll talk about a general aesthetic, maybe bring in some general sketches and compose on the spot. It’s not a cop out or not being prepared. I’ve tried to take advantage of musicians who can actually improvise and create something in the moment.”

Born in North Carolina to parents of Indian descent who immigrated from East Africa, Bhatia has collaborated with a far-flung array of heavyweights, from Kronos Quartet, drum maestro Billy Hart and guitar virtuoso Mary Halvorson to vocalist extraordinaire Cécile McLorin Salvant, cello explorer Okkyung Lee, and Cuban pianist David Virelles.

He’s probably best known as a member of Son Lux, a trio that has released a series of acclaimed albums. The group earned a Grammy Award nomination for their soundtrack to the Michelle Yeoh film Everything Everywhere All At Once, which also put them in rarified company as the first band to receive an Academy Award scoring nomination since 1971, when the Beatles won best original song score for Let It Be.

Akinmusire has also been hitting a series of career high notes. He just finished a run as resident artistic director at SFJAZZ that included a concert by his quartet joined by tenor saxophonist and fellow Berkeley High graduate Joshua Redman. The four-night run concluded with a solo trumpet recital in Grace Cathedral. Both performances were stunning, but the show everyone wants to talk to him about was his duo concert with 85-year-old bass legend Ron Carter.

“It’s just an honor for me to be able to share the stage with him, for him to even say yes to the gig,” Akinmusire says, still sounding a little awed at the encounter two weeks later. “To think that Ron Carter got on a plane to play duo with me, shit!”

Carter, the most prolifically recorded bassist in jazz history, insisted that Akinmusire compose new music for the concert rather then simply coming up with a set list of standards. 

“He said ‘I’m not getting on a plane to jam with you, write some music,’” Akinmusire says. “He called me afterwards and we talked about doing it again.”

These days, Akinmusire has become one of jazz’s most dependably inspired and thoughtful artists. Which is why the offers and commissions keep coming in. The Monterey Jazz Festival just tapped him (for the second time) as 2023’s commissioned composer. 

Ambrose Akinmusire + Rafiq Bhatia

Sun, 5:30pm, $40

Tabard Theatre


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