Hear This: Les Nubians, Ambrose Akinmusire, Pharoahe Monch

April brings eclectic offerings from The Root’s Roundup, from Spanish-and-African-flavored jazz to conscious rap to Pan-African neo-soul. Good listening awaits.


When the Heart Emerges Glistening by Ambrose Akinmusire 

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (ah-kin-MOO-sir-re) has just released When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his first album for major jazz label Blue Note Records. The Oakland, Calif., native was the subject of a major profile in last Sunday's New York Times. Heart is a shifty and fascinating album for its alternations between mellow and intense feelings. Co-produced by Akinmusire and prominent pianist Jason Moran, the album features Walter Smith III on tenor sax, Gerald Clayton on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums.

Akinmusire's influences are clearly quite diverse, and while embracing the history of jazz, he employs a variety of rhythms and styles, from Spanish (or possibly Arab) to African. On two interludes that are tributes to his mother, I think I hear (and I'm no musicologist) intervals that remind me of medieval European music but add up to an effect of a sort of timeless dignity.

His themes are just as diverse. "The Walls of Lechuguilla" refers to a cave system in New Mexico and seems to me to be a good musical reflection of entering and exploring a cave. An up-tempo number that allows the musicians to stretch out a bit, it is perhaps is my favorite tune on the album.

"My Name Is Oscar" is a tribute to Oscar Grant, a black man killed by police in Oakland on New Year's Eve in 2009. It includes Akinmusire speaking in a formal, almost 1960s sci-fi style. The words are perhaps supposed to feel distant and disembodied over Brown's alternately angry and exasperated drums. "We are the same ... my name is Oscar ... I am Grant. My name is Oscar. I, Grant. My name is Oscar Grant." It is carefully put together and seems a fitting tribute.

Some of Akinmusire's numbers feel a little heavy-handed. "Confessions to My Unborn Daughter" and "Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto" sound how you'd expect them to sound. I'd want a tune like "Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto" to actually be some sort of zany circus music -- surprise, listener! -- but that's just me.

Akinmusire also includes a fantastic take on the old jazz standard "What's New?" This feels inspired, both for the trumpet and piano, and also sounds fresh. I hope that this album will be the first of many for Akinmusire on Blue Note and that future albums will include more standards, for which he seems to have a feeling and a knack.

W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) by Pharoahe Monch

The great Pharoahe Monch, one of the smartest, most diverse and consistent rappers of all time, is back with an exciting new album. Originally a member of the underrated group Organized Konfusion in the early 1990s, he revisits themes important to him since then, from dystopias to his battle with asthma.

W.A.R. begins with an introduction by Idris Elba, playing a character in the Afghanistan of 2023, setting the tone for an album that is a bit apocalyptic but not necessarily dreary. In fact, it's rather uplifting, especially "Still Standing" (featuring Jill Scott), in which he delivers his most poignant reflections on asthma.