Let Us Now Praise (Near-)Famous Men

Muhal Richard Abrams
Tin Palace, NYC

MRA, piano; Anthony Braxton, alto sax; George Lewis, trombone; Fred Hopkins, bass; Steve McCall, drums.

Muhal Richard Abrams
Black Saint : 1977

MRA, piano; Anthony Braxton, alto sax; Leonard Jones, bass.

Muhal Richard Abrams & Malachi Favors
Black Saint : 1975

MRA, piano.


With the recent sad loss of trumpet titan Bill Dixon, it is once again time to cue up another rendition of “gather ye rosebuds” and celebrate the musical giants that still walk amongst us. This year’s Vision Festival, starting next week, does just this, honoring Muhal Richard Abrams with their Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday, June 24th. We cannot think of a more worthy recipient.

Abrams is perennially under-recognized. A teacher, educator, organizer, composer, bandleader, and pianist of the highest order, not to mention one of the co-founders and guiding lights of the AACM during its five-decade run, Abrams has maintained a criminally low profile over the course of his entire career.

Emblematic anecdote from the intro to George Lewis’ AACM history: Lewis proposes a biography of Abrams; he demurs, and suggests instead the need for a book on the AACM as a whole. So to some extent the low profile is perhaps desired by this artist. When the jazz blog conversation kicked up about four years ago with an Ethan Iverson-spurred conversation about overlooked Post-1973 Jazz, one of our two contributions to the exchange was Abrams. He was overlooked (it seemed to us) even then!

To both honor Abrams in our own small way, and draw attention to this year’s Vision Fest — which, we can say with absolutely no hyperbole, presents their greatest lineup yet — we are happy to showcase Abrams leading a couple of small groups taking on his own compositions, plus a beautiful solo outing.

The first is an admittedly rough-sounding boot from a 1976 show featuring an all-star line-up. This gig took place at the Tin Palace, one of the essential spaces booking progressive, adventurous jazz in the mid-Seventies. (Stanley Crouch took over Tin Palace bookings in 1977.) Though the unison passages are tough to make out, the soloists are given a lot of space, and the sonics improve. What it lacks in fidelity it more than makes up for it in immediacy and warmth.

The next two are drawn from Abrams’ great run of albums for Black Saint in the 1970s and 80s. While we are more familiar with his large group recordings of this period, which tend to highlight Abrams the composer and arranger more than player, we thought it fitting to showcase his ample talents with some small group performances.  Brian Olewnick turned us on to the joys of Sightsong several years ago. The disc also features a solo turn by Favors, and on most tracks they play together. “Panorama,” though, finds Abrams, alone, in a notably lyrical mood. “Arhythm Songy” is culled from a curious album of the same period, featuring a crackerjack band that includes Henry Threadgill and McCall in addition to the personnel above. For this trio exploration, a winding theme opens up to some great counterpoint and striking simultaneous soloing from Braxton and Muhal.

For those in New York City in the next two weeks, there’s an embarrassment of riches at this year’s Vision Festival. Click above for the full schedule.

You can’t go too wrong, but we especially recommend the show on Thursday, June 24, which features Muhal performing solo and with his trio. Joseph Jarman performs that night as well.

On Sunday, June 27th, there’s the David S. Ware trio, Billy Bang, and Dave Burrell. Monday, June 28th, includes The Stone Quartet with Marilyn Crispell, Matt Maneri, Joelle Leandre, and Roy Campbell, plus Wadada Leo Smith, Mike Reed’s People Places & Things, and Joe Morris. And this Monday, the 21st, these folks (and more!) will grace The Local 269 stage: Jason Kao Hwang, Darius Jones, Adam Lane, Tim Berne, Nate Wooley, and Mary Halvorson.

We’ll be at at least three of these nights for sure. If you make the scene, be sure to say hello! (Just yell “Jeff” into the crowd and there’s a decent chance one of us will turn around).


—-Jason Moran picks his dozen essential Abrams tracks here

—-A fine interview with Muhal here

Special thanks to Ethan Iverson for help with this post.

* * * * *
What are your favorite Muhal performances?

Discussion8 Comments Category Muhal Richard Abrams Tags , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 Responses to Let Us Now Praise (Near-)Famous Men

  1. In addition to tracks posted and mentioned, how about the “Tribute to Hemphill and Pullen” on One Line, Two Views. Short and tasty.

  2. “Bloodline,” on Blu Blu Blu. I’d say it’s the band playing the entire history of jazz, but that sounds like no fun, and it is the opposite of no fun.

    A lot of “Things to Come from Those Now Gone,” but if I have to pick one I pick “How Are you?” That’s right, the one with the singing. I think I’m going to pop that on right now.

  3. Thanks for the comments! We do like “Bloodline,” and featured a different perf of the piece a while back: http://destination-out.com/?p=229.

    “Tribute to Hemphill and Pullen” sounds sweet.

  4. ALSO, before we forget, the two albums featured above, Sightsong and 1-Oqa+19, are widely available as downloads. Here are amazon links, eg:
    http://amzn.to/97DWxF (Sightsong)
    http://amzn.to/aYPFJo (1-Oqa+19)
    —both around US$5!

  5. hello.
    nice blog! my name is fabian, i work for ANALOGSOUL, a german network for fantastic music and i would love to send you some music. maybe you are interested. for that i need some contact info. maybe you can send me a short mail to: kontakt (at) analogsoul (dot) de

    thanks in advance.

  6. “Bloodline” is a great tune. The Blu Blu Blu version gets my nod over the one on Rejoicing with the Light, ‘though both versions are a joy to listen to.

    Really need to get my a** over to NYC for next year’s Vision Fest. This year’s line-up is a “tour de force” of some of my favorite living jazz musicians.

  7. Hey guys, sorry for the late post on this, but Abrams is one of my favorite outside musicians, so I figured better late than never. More specifically, Abrams is one of my favorite musicians who makes anyone he plays with better. I’m partial to his interaction with Anthony Braxton on several occasions, especially the wonderful Braxton Mosaic box set, and also the Hat Hut 1977 Basel concert. I had mentioned the excellent 2006 Pi recording “Streaming” in a previous post, and I still think that one is a highpoint of Abram’s recent work. It’s interesting to listen to what George Lewis does with all of his computer stuff based on what Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell play. Safe to say that it’s necessary for all three to be interacting, or this recording would not have turned out the way it did.

  8. I’m a longtime fan of Abrams–there really is much more to cover than time permits, but I wanted to mention a couple of highlights for me, both from 1978.

    One is the album “Lifea Blinec,” my absolute favorite Muhal album. Two pianos (Muhal and Aminia Claudine Myers), two woodwinds (Jarman and Ewart) and Thurman Barker. A real dream group, and boy do they tear it up! Among other things, it’s a great addition to the available work of the woefully underrecorded Douglas Ewart.

    The second is a 1978 concert from Holland, with another killer lineup: Threadgill and George Lewis, Leonard Jones on bass, and Steve McCall on drums. This is an outrageously incredible set. The radio broadcast can be found at Inconstant Sol, and it is an absolute must for Abrams fans.

    The Tin Palace excerpt you play here is a stunner. I’d love it if you could post more of it at some point!

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