ANCIENT AND FUTURE REFLECTIONS
DU KING (DEDICATED TO DUKE ELLINGTON)
DUET FOR ONE WORLD
Muhal Richard Abrams
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.