And his mother called him Muhal

Muhal Richard Abrams
Blues Forever
Black Saint : 1982

MRA, piano and conductor; Baikida Carroll, trumpet, flugelhorn; Craig Harris, trombone; Wallace Laroy McMillan, baritone sax, flute; Jimmy Vass, alto sax, flute; Eugene Ghee, tenor sax, clarinet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Howard Johnson, tuba, baritone sax; Jean-Paul Bourelly, guitar; Michael Logan, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

Muhal Richard Abrams was my free jazz gateway drug. One of the most valued clippings in my yellowing collection dates from my arrival in New York, in 1990: the Village Voice ran a survey of jazz critics, asking for their top ten jazz albums of the 1980s. For me this tattered sheet became a buyer’s guide, the jazz equivalent of Old Blue. I have this list to thank for hipping me to the World Saxophone Quartet, Henry Threadgill, Dave Holland, David Murray, Cassandra Wilson, Tim Berne…and, first and foremost, Abrams.

It’s easy to overlook Abrams, as Ethan Iverson perhaps did in his otherwise unimpeachable and supremely generous list of his personal faves from 1973 to 1990. (Or maybe EI just doesn’t dig him as much as we do.) In some ways, Abrams has taken on that cloak of virtual invisibility that often shrouds the best teachers: As founder of the AACM, he shepherded the likes of Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Threadgill, and Jack DeJohnette into the land of the free. Abrams’ low profile may also be the result of his desire not to deliver the same thing each time out, varying his groups and recorded output constantly.

In the 1980s, though, Abrams was, on record at least, very much about a big band. It’s not a complete stretch to say that he was picking up where Ellington left off, utilizing players in ways that raised their game, and creating beautiful tapestries of sound that balance form and freedom in a proportion that never fails to thrill. (And I say this without being unduly swayed by the Ellington shout-out above.) These tracks surprise, swing, and slither. I’m going to forgo the track-by-track exegesis in order to favor the surprise.

Gary Giddins wrote of Abrams that he is “untempted by compromise yet readily willing to please.” Were we all so.

Category Muhal Richard Abrams

10 Responses to And his mother called him Muhal

  1. You should post the full list if you still have it.

  2. Nice idea; I’ll try to. More realistically, given the length: I’ll get to it piecemeal, reviewer by reviewer. Wonder if the Voice has it online – you try Googling it?

  3. Hey- more great stuff, thanks. I love Abrams on Fanfare for the Warriors, with the AEC. Maybe I’ll dig out lifeablinec, a recording I had a very tough time getting next to when I first heard it.

    thanks again,

    Peter Breslin

  4. Hey, awesome! This is like the one Muhal record I don’t own.

  5. The late 60s through the 80s were such a creative time for the AACM — by turning the spotlight onto this music and these creators (Muhal, the Art Ensemble, Hemphill), perhaps younger people will go back and discover just how inventive and courageous these artists were and, in some instances, still are.

  6. Muhal might have been the single most wonderful people I encountered during my days working at Environ from 1976-80. Ready at the drop of a hat to sit down and spend a couple hours talking about the music and life in general.

    His duo with Favors, “Sightsong” might be my favorite of releases under his name but, as I mentioned to Steve Smith yesterday (who hipped me to this site–thanks, Steve!–), his playing on Marion Brown’s shamefully out of print “Sweet Earth Flying” is just amazingly gorgeous.

  7. I’m the guy that coerced Brian into coming to work at Environ and also had the privilege to get to know Muhal up close and personal. The thing I remember most about him was the peace he eminated-a real sense that he knew who he was and what he was doing and didn’t have any issues about it. This eminent reserve was in marked contrast to other younger musicians on the scene that played their mouths on the sidelines as much as their instruments on the stage.

    The greatest joys I had with Muhal were one time showing up early at Environ where he practiced in the daytime. I asked him to play one tune from one of his solo albums (I can’t remember which one offhand) which I didn’t remember the title to. It was a Bud Powellish bop kind of piece-well I got a little mini concert of several songs until he came up with the right one.

    I’ll never forget the beautiful smile he had on his face when he was playing his own compostions for a friend that appreciated them. Pretty special to me too- i was only 16 at the time.

  8. Thanks to all for the wonderful comments and recollections. Rich stuff. As for Sweet Earth Flying…we’ll surely get to that one (though Geechee got the first Marion Brown post).

  9. Sweet-excellent job on the site. You’re enabling me to re-establish contact with music and info that I have a strong history with but have become detached from. That’s a good thing my friend.

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    Best always.