Sullivan Fortner & Ambrose Akinmusire at Rackham Auditorium March – 2024: Photos


When it comes to its annual concert series, Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society utilizes Hill Auditorium and the Michigan Theater as the venues for the majority of its performances.

When this rare appearance of pianist Sullivan Fortner and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire was set to take place at another performance space on the campus of the University of Michigan, Rackham Auditorium, it seemed to be somewhat of an unusual choice of location.

Weather Bird: Sullivan Fortner and Ambrose Akinmusire โ€“ UMS โ€“ University  Musical Society

Looking closer at the history of Rackham and at Fortner and Akinmusire’s impetus for their performance, the choice seemed sagacious and very logical. Built in 1938 with funds from an endowment left by Detroit lawyer Horace Rackham, the 1040-seat auditorium boasts velvet seats and a gold-leafed ceiling. Usually the home for chamber music concerts, the hall’s refined acoustics are superb. In fact, no microphones were used at all for a generous set that found Fortner and Akinmusire saluting a 1928 recording by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines that might be the most famous jazz duet in history.

The aforementioned recording is specifically known as “Weather Bird” and it would be one of many vintage-era pieces chosen for a stunning and lengthy performance that was a revelation for fans of both artists. Akinmusire is better known for his left of center approach and avant-garde muse. Yet, he demonstrated a total mastery of his horn that was a wonder to behold. Between his mature use of dynamics and perfect intonation, Akinmusire laid claim to being one of the finest musicians of his generation. From his own “Owl Song” to “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” the breath of expression was highly appealing.

Sullivan Fortner Trio with special guest Ambrose Akinmusire โ€“ GateMe

Not to be outdone, Fortner responded to the trumpeter’s every move, matching the temperament from abstract to celebratory. He also revealed his own wide-ranging mastery of the piano lexicon. Be it the stride approach he applied to “Rosetta” or the rollicking swing of “West End Blues,” Fortner verified himself to be a master of many styles. Although an intermission was slated to be in the offing, midway through the evening, Fortner picked up his microphone and announced that the pair was having so much fun that they intended to keep playing. A charismatic and delightful personality, he discussed the motivation for this project and the pieces that they had chosen.

As the evening reached its conclusion, Akinmusire took an opportunity to wax poetic about one of his main inspirations, the late Roy Hargrove. The well-chosen selection of “Nature Boy” brought forth burnished tones and a mature statement from the trumpeter that left the large crowd feeling enriched by this most inspired jazz pairings.

Weather Bird: Sullivan Fortner and Ambrose Akinmusire at Rackham Auditorium

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