Muhal Richard Abrams: Things to Come From Those Now Gone

While Muhal Richard Abrams is versed in the open improvisations and extended forms that have come to characterize the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (which he co-founded in Chicago in 1965), his discography also abounds with terse and tightly structured works for small groups and big bands. The title track from his third Delmark album is exemplary of his ingenious short-form writing, in this case for sextet. The piece opens with a spacious drum duet, and spikes in intensity when the twinned altos enter, spitting out the bent and steely postbop theme, navigating narrow passes in tandem, trading phrases at peak velocity. Eschewing any avant-garde tendency toward longwinded statements, Abrams plays a solo of approximately six seconds.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: One for the Whistler

Muhal Richard Abrams has been leading large ensembles since 1961, and his orchestral work balances pure experimentalism with more overt references to the jazz tradition. The result is often a vibrant progressive big band music, as heard on “One For The Whistler.” Here Abrams overflows with ideas for timbral blends—note the vibraphone and muted trumpet that offset Joel Brandon’s papery, flutelike whistling. But despite the dedication to Brandon, the piece is more of a feature for saxophonist Eugene Ghee. The tenorman turns it out in classic ballad mode, with his romantic and moonlit solo evoking the rattle of the el over rain-slicked streets.

August 08, 2008 · 1 comment

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Sightsong

This duet puts Muhal in direct sonic context with other Chicago pianists: Jodie Christian, Herbie Hancock and Andrew Hill. His playing here is simply gorgeous. Characteristics such as the clarity of his runs, his patience, the use of the sustain pedal, the intensity, the emotional sensitivity, and the final phrase that rings out on the piano: all make this piece a bona fide masterpiece.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Laja

Utilizing the rhythm and feel of salsa music, you get a feel of how Muhal hears music. He hears the rhythm and then allows his style of harmonic writing to infiltrate the rhythm. I remember him telling me once “the innovations in music are predominantly through rhythm.” I love this. If this piece had different notes, you’d think it was Tito Puente.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Unity (Dedicated to the A.A.C.M.)

A great duo trip. Muhal pulls a lot out of the instrument on this one. The tumultuous duet gives the feeling that there are four to six musicians, but there are only two.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Imagine

Muhal performing solo on synthesizer. It’s a mind-trip to hear some of the handclap sounds that are so closely associated with hip-hop music exist in this piece. This is a great experiment that, to one degree, dehumanizes Muhal’s music, but at the same time retains its human element. Also the fake record scratching sounds and raygun-shots are married with Muhal’s sense of harmony. It is truly Imagined.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Du King (Dedicated to Duke Ellington)

This is a great take on some of Duke Ellington’s early '20s and '30s music. The density of the horns combined with the jutting in and out of the band makes this a true early jazz piece. It sounds nothing like the '20s or '30s, but contains the elements. It also doesn’t wear its welcome out—it’s only two minutes long.

August 08, 2008 · 1 comment

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Over the Same Over

This piece moves a lot of different places, but over a backbeat. What Muhal wrote makes the backbeat feel in place, but also out of place. Also, these kinds of backgrounds sound like the James Brown horn section, or the Steve Coleman type of rhythmic chants. It’s engaging. Also, at the end of the piece is Muhal on synthesizer, digitizing the sound that the band has previously played on. It’s a true time warp.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Down at Pepper's

A classic Muhal opening phrase that lands in a South Side Chicago blues. Muhal was the one that showed me how to marry the contemporary aesthetic with the roots of jazz, the blues. This blues is so authentic that on Muhal’s solos, you can hear a broken piano string. Also, Muhal does the classic piano rolls that blues pianists do. My blues piano playing cousin from Chicago taught me the same roll on the piano, what he called “The Tickle.”

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: J.G. (Dedicated to Johnny Griffin)

This melody is recognizable in its “feel,” but it loops you around before bookending itself with a Monk-like phrase. Here you get to hear Muhal’s drummer-like “feel.” I could imagine his right hand sounding like the right hand of a drummer playing the ride cymbal.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Colors in Thirty-Third

Muhal is the best at composing complex, snake-like melodies. The melodies turn when you least expect. The last phrase of the melody creates a centripetal feeling as it repeats itself incessantly before finally releasing into the solos. Muhal created the types of musical phrases M-Base has become known for. What is also brilliant here is how the soloists move into each other in surprising ways.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Time Into Space Into Time

In the vein of other Muhal compositions like "Charlie in the Parker," this piece has a melody that is injected with jarring inserts of harmony. The melody is technically challenging as well. What I love about how Muhal plays is how he continually refers back to the melody. The listener listens to each idea develop from its root to the newest bud.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: C.C.'s World

Upon first listening to this, one might think it was a beautiful improvisation. Muhal improvises on the melody for the first four minutes, then spends the last three minutes playing the melody. In this piece, his lush voicings are simply perfect. A player like Muhal constantly defies your expectations. At one moment he can play as sensitive as Herbie Hancock, at another as densely as Cecil Taylor, but he always maintains his identity.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Balladi

Muhal Richard Abrams relocated to New York from Chicago in 1976, seeking new audiences, opportunities, and institutional supports in Manhattan's vibrant experimental music community. Everyone else on this recording had made the same move sometime during the decade, part of a seemingly mass migration. By the sound of it, they were thriving in the new environment. "Balladi" is another of Abrams's novel settings for small groups, full of mystery and wit. There's a kind of "town vs. country" premise to the piece, where pastoral flute melodies and chiming percussion bracket the street fair clamor of the middle section, with its honking horns, marching drums and vocal chatter. There's really no reconciling these conflicting moods, but perhaps that's the point. Anyway, it's an intriguing study.

August 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Charlie in the Parker

This piece features what I call a pyrotechnical melody. It is impressive that everyone is so synchronized, but still feels loose. During the solos, each musician moves through the melody at their own pace, always referencing it—kind of like what Thelonious Monk was prone to do, or any good soloist. The performance feels like a free version of Dixieland group improvisation. Muhal shifts back and forth between comping and soloing brilliantly. The energy in this piece never wanes. This “in-your-face” performance is breathtaking.

August 08, 2008 · 1 comment

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