Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music. I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.
For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.
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Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat):
“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.
Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.
“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”
It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.
“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”
Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”
Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person. He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”
“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’
It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.
“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”
Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”
The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.
“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”
“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”
Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.
“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”
This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.
“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”
For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.
“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.
“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”
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DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009
George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.
On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”
“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”
“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.
It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.
“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”
It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.
“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”
Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.
Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.
For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.
Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.
“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”
“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”
Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”
Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield, and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).
“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.
“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.
“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.
“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”
“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”
Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”
“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”
“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”
In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”
With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.
“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”
Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”
“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.
“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”
“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”
“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”
“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”
This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?
“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”
“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”
Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”
“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”
“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’
Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”
“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB
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Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):
At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”
Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.
“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”
He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”
As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.
Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.
“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”
Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.
The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.
I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.
“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.
“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”
Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”
However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.
“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”
Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.
“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.
“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music. He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”
Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”
That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:
Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.
Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before proceeding to push the envelope every which way.
Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.
One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.
Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.
* * *
Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):
At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.
“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”
Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.
The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.
Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.
The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.
Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”
The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different. You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”
“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”
As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson, Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”
Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”
Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”
Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.
“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.
“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”