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Abrams, Muhal Richard

Pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams combines influences from classical, jazz and experimental music in a prolific, thorougly modern and personal body of work. Cofounder and New York chapter president of Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, He has dedicated his life and career towards the progress of new music in the jazz idiom.


                Muhal Richard Abrams (photo by Michael Wilderman)

As a pianist, Abrams’ style includes free jazz, bebop, contemporary classical music and stride piano. Muhal’s technique runs the gamut of freewheeling blues-inspired reflections, progressive atonality and unbridled phrasing. The result is a sound that is equally reflective of jazz’s past as well as its future.

Richard Abrams was born on September 19, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. As a teenager, Abrams attended DuSable High School in Chicago where he focused his attention more towards the school’s sports program than the music program. Wanting to learn more about music, Muhal briefly enrolled at Chicago's Roosevelt University. He left stating that what he was learning was not what he was hearing in the Chicago jazz scene.

Soon after, Abrams decided to teach himself what he wanted to learn. Upon acquiring a piano, Muhal tirelessly taught himself the fundamentals of music including everything from basic reading skills to transcribing solos. Early influences included Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. When it came to composition, Muhal has cited bandleaders Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington as his primary influences.

During this period, Abrams also picked up the fundamentals of several other instruments including the clarinet and cello. He sharpened this composition and arranging skills by observing and listening to other artists as well as analyzing their work.

At the age of seventeen, Abrams enrolled at Chicago Musical College, which he attended for four years. In 1948, made his professional performance debut and two years later, he secured a gig writing music for the King Fleming Band. Upon finishing his studies at Chicago Musical College, he began to attend Governors State University where he took courses in electronic music.

Throughout the 1950s, Abrams began to accompany several local and visiting musicians in Chicago including drummer Max Roach, saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt and singer Ruth Brown, amongst others. In 1957, Muhal became a member of drummer Walter Perkins’ group “Modern Jazz Two + Three,” otherwise known as the “MJT + 3.” In the following year, he made his recording debut with the group with Daddy-O Presents MJT + 3. The album features several Abrams originals including “End of the Line” and “No Land’s Man.”

In 1961, Abrams and tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris joined forces with trumpeter Johnny Hines to form an ensemble where they could workshop their ideas and compositions. Harris would later state that dozens of enthusiastic musicians of numerous ages and levels of talent attended these workshops, though the ensemble disbanded after several months.

Taking the idea of a band to workshop his ideas, Abrams formed his first group the Experimental Band in the early 1960s, which for a brief time included a young Don Pullen. The ensemble featured some of the best talent in Chicago including Harris, saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Donald Garret and bassist Victor Sproles. The band was initially started as a rehearsal group and was short-lived. Though the group was momentary, it sowed the seeds of what would later be known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, otherwise known as the “AACM.”

The AACM officially formed in Chicago on May 8, 1965. The group was a collective of musicians that wished to see the full sonic potential of their music and each other. Abrams was the group’s first president and one of its main proponents. One of the major ideas of the group was the encouragement of young musicians to become familiar with the history of jazz so that they can better experiment in the idiom. They were inspired by the avant-garde jazz that was happening in New York City, with alto saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy being of particular inspiration.

Before long, the AACM began to expand, including saxophonist Anthony Braxton, trumpeters Lester Bowie and Leo Smith, drummer Steve McCall and violinist Leroy Jenkins. The AACM began to become a Chicago staple with its members starting other groups and side projects including the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Creative Construction Company.

By the late 1960s, Abrams set out to show the world what he had been work shopping with the AACM. In 1967, Muhal recorded Levels and Degrees of Light, his debut album as a leader. The album is of note partly because it was the first recording sessions for Braxton as well charting the course for his compositional genius for decades to come. The album features contributions from Leroy Jenkins, saxophonist Maurice McIntyre, vibraphonist Gordon Emmanuel, bassist Leonard Jones and vocalist Penelope Taylor. Before the release of the album, he added the “Muhal” in front on his name.

In the following year, Abrams performed on Braxton’s album 3 Compositions of New Jazz on which he played piano, cello and clarinet. In 1969, Muhal released the album Young at Heart/Wise in Time. He continued his prolific recording with the decade to come by appearing with trumpeter Kenny Dorham on his 1970 release Kenny Dorham Sextet. In 1971, Abrams appeared on Eddie Harris’ album Instant Death for Atlantic Records.

The album’s title song is a great example of Muhal’s work in this period.The song begins with Abrams performing a funky phrase on the electric piano before the rest of the ensemble comes into the arrangement. The light, airy performance of Muhal’s serves to solidify the free from, yet very tight arrangement of the song. With the help of bassist Rufus Reid, his overall performance is augmented with Reid solidifying the rhythmic foundation of the song, which frees up Abrams’ melodic potential.

The following year, Abrams released the album Things to Come from Those Now Gone. The album along with his 1976 release Sightsong, showcases the ever-evolving compositional desires of Muhal with both albums incorporating bebop, electronic music, orchestral music and even opera. Released on the Black Saint label, Sightsong was an album co-led with bassist Malachi Favors of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The same year, he recorded the album Duets with Braxton.

In 1975, Abrams moved to New York City where he began to perform and record in a variety of formats whether as a soloist or in duos with Lewis, Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and pianist Amina Claudine Myers. Muhal also led smalls group and a big band that featured saxophonist Henry Threadgill, and drummer Andrew Cyrille amongst others.

Upon his arrival in New York City, Abrams found himself a major player in the city’s loft jazz scene, which were jazz performances at venues that were once formal industrial spaces in the city’s Soho neighborhood. Muhal continued to experiment with different styles with 1978’s 1-OQA+19. The same year, he performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which expanded his presence in the European jazz community.

By the early 1980s, Abrams began to experiment with different vocal and synthesizer effects, an early example being is 1980 album Spihumonesty. The same year, he recorded his project Mama and Daddy, an ambitious endeavor that saw the instrumentation including strings, brass and percussion blending with experimental music and chamber music.

Abrams continued his experiments with the orchestra with his 1981 album Blues Forever and its follow-up release Rejoicing with the Light in 1983. During this time, Muhal began to receive more commissions for his work, including “Variations for Solo Saxophone, Flute and Chamber Orchestra,” which was commissioned by the City of Chicago for the 1982 New Music America Festival.

Muhal opted for smaller groups with 1985’s View from Within. A standout track on View from Within is the song “Down at Pepper’s.” This blues-infused number showcases the relaxed feel of Abrams, with his tight piano rolls and blues scale-laden melodic devices. Muhal’s use of descending half steps back into the verse makes the overall blues feel that much more classic. The song also serves to demonstrate his superb accompanying skills, with his rich ornamentations serving to bring out the timbre of trumpeter Stanton Davis Jr.’s performance.

The same year, Abrams’ compositional efforts received a boost in acclaim when he composed the piece “String Quartet #2” for the acclaimed Kronos Quartet. The piece was premiered on November 22, 1985 at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York. On February 7, 1986, Muhal performed with bassist Cecil McBee at the Carnegie Recital Hall. Four days later, pianists Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzewski at the Whitney Museum in New York City performed his piece “Piano Duet #1”.

In 1987, Abrams released the album Colors in Thirty-Third. The album’s title track is an excellent example of his 1980s compositional efforts. Arranged for violin, soprano sax, piano, bass and drums, the song showcases how tight his arranging is for the unusual instrumentation. Richard’s use of counterpoint within the ensemble is especially noteworthy, with each voice weaving in and out of each other with ease.

In the late 1980s, Abrams led a quintet that featured Stanton Davis and saxophonist John Purcell. On July 9, 1988, Muhal’s piece “Folk Tales 88” was performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra at Fort Hamilton Base in Brooklyn, New York. In, 1989, he performed at the Knitting Factory in New York with Purcell, Andrew Cyrille and bassist Fred Hopkins. The following year, he was the first recipient of the Danish Jazz Center’s Jazzpar Award.

Abrams began the 1990s with the release of his album Blu Blu Blu. The album was lauded as one of Muhal’s strongest albums as a leader of a big band. In the following year, he brought his orchestra on a tour of France. Two years later, he performed in a duo with Roscoe Mitchell.

In 1994, Abrams performed in Britain with an octet and in New York with a quintet that included trumpeter Eddie Allen, bassist Bradley Jones and drummer Reggie Nicholson. The following year Muhal released the album One Live, Two Views, which featured his continuing experiments with the juxtaposition of jazz, classical music and traditional African music.

In 1996, Abrams paid tribute to Thelonoius Monk with the album Interpretations of Monk, Vol. 1. The project came about from a series of recordings he made at Columbia University in 1981 with pianist Barry Harris. The same year, he released the album Open Air Meeting, an album of duets with saxophonist/clarinetist Marty Ehrlich.

In 1997, Abrams received a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award. Muhal continues to be active with the AACM, serving as the president of its New York chapter. He is also on the board of the National Jazz Service Association and was once a panelist for the National Endowments for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.

In 1999, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago declared April 11, 1999 “Muhal Richard Abrams Day” in Chicago. Abrams continues to educate outside of the AACM by teaching composition and improvisation at several schools and organizations including academic positions at Columbia University, Syracuse University, and The New England Conservatory. He has also led workshops and lectured internationally at The Banff Centre in Canada and The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland.

In March 2001, Abrams released the album Visibility of Thought on the Mutable Music label. The album features four contemporary classical pieces as well as an electronic piece and a thirty-minute piano improvisation. In October 2006, Muhal released the album Streaming with George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. The album’s use of exploratory electronic sounds juxtaposed with free jazz makes the album a shining example in the three men’s discography.

In 2008, Abrams performed with Amina Claudine Myers at The Kitchen in New York City. Muhal’s most recent release is the live album Vision Towards Essence in 2008. Originally recorded on September 11, 1998 at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada, the album features three solo pieces showcasing the various techniques and styles of Abrams.

In May 2009, Abrams was declared a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States' highest honor for jazz musicians. Abrams lives in New York City where he continues to perform with his own ensembles and as a soloist and composer for the orchestra and chamber works.

Select Discography

As a leader

Levels and Degrees of Light (1967)

Young at Heart/Wise in Time (1969)

Things to Come from Those Now Gone (1972)

Sightsong (1976)

1-OQA+19 (1978)

Spihumonesty (1980)

Mama And Daddy (1980)

Blues Forever (1981)

Rejoicing with the Light (1983)

View From Within (1985)

Colors in Thirty-Third (1987)

Blu Blu Blu (1990)

One Live, Two Views (1995)

Interpretations of Monk (1996)

Visibility of Thought (2001)

Vision Towards Essence (2008)

With Anthony Braxton

3 Compositions of New Jazz (1968)

Duets (1976)

With Kenny Dorham

Kenny Dorham Sextet (1970)

With Marty Ehrlich

Open Air Meeting (1996)

With Eddie Harris

Instant Death (1971)

With George Lewis & Roscoe Mitchell

Streaming (2006)

With MJT + 3

Daddy-O Presents MJT + 3 (1958)

Contributor: Eric Wendell