The annual Thelonious Monk Intl. Jazz Competition has jump-started the careers of myriad musical talents over the past two decades, among them such scene staples as Joshua Redman, Jacky Terrasson and Teri Thornton. This year, judges at the competition, which shifts its focus annually to spotlight different instruments, bestowed top honors on California-based trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who made an impressive Gotham bow, delivering a challenging perf anchored by a series of invigorating — if sometimes abstruse — originals.
Akinmusire is fond of languid, rippling patterns that emerge, echo and gradually fade into the distance. They certainly don’t fade from memory, however. Despite their lack of showiness, compositions like “Roka,” which he dedicated to his mother, managed to work their way under the skin, delivering a tickle one moment and an electric jolt the next. The latter element came to the fore through the soloing of saxophonist Walter Smith III, whose tone is reminiscent of Sam Rivers in his hard bop phase.
The 25-year-old trumpeter showed plenty of fire but refrained from the sort of overplaying that can mar a big gig by a (relatively) new face. He’s comfortable with silence and punctuates his playing with well-placed pauses — an M.O. that was picked up by his bandmates, particularly vibraphonist Chris Dingman, who turned in some poignant work on “Ruby.”
While accomplished as individual players, the sextet was only marginally successful when it came to ensemble playing. There was a tentative quality when Akinmusire and Smith played in unison, and neither seemed particularly connected to the rhythm section. But with a little bit of connect-the-dots effort on the part of the listener, the set offered up a good bit of cerebral absorption and transportive energy.