Muhal Richard Abrams: Jazz Innovator, Founder Of The A. A.C. M.

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[This article originally appeared in Contemporary Keyboard.]

MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS has been a major figure on the contemporary jazz scene for more than two decades, with his influence extending from his original home base of Chicago across the country and over to Europe, where he has been performing more and more frequently in recent years. In addition to being a strongly individualistic pianist, Abrams is also an important teacher, composer, and arranger, but he may be best remembered by future generations of musicians as the co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a cooperative organization of jazz-rooted black performers.

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The Abrams piano style is hard to stereotype; it touches nearly all the musical bases. One need only listen to one of his albums—he has appeared on more than 20—to confirm this fact. On Duets [Arista, 4101], which he recorded in 1976 with multi-reed player Anthony Braxton, Abrams veers from style to style as soloist, co-improviser, and accompanist, playing quick single-note lines rooted in Bud Powell, twitterish trills and bird call effects reminiscent of Messiaen, sharp isolated notes with the economy of Webern, crashing sustained chords, and even long, lush Impressionistic lines.

Abrams was born on September 19, 1930. Although he spent four years at the Chicago Musical College, he claims that he is basically self-taught. "I stepped into music when I was 17," Abrams recalls. "That was in 1948. Then I started seeking out ways of studying. That's when I had a couple of bouts with the school thing, but I don't credit any school for my music. I've studied music on my own, and I also learned from just gigging around."

In his youth Abrams listened to and learned from the early piano masters of jazz, most notably James P. Johnson, whose stride style is still occasionally echoed in Abrams's playing. "James P. Johnson was like a very strong foundation to many pianists," he notes, "and at any moment he could dominate a group. Listening to those early pianists is like going to class. You learn an understanding of approach. If you do just a few of the things they did, it will take you a long way."

Other historical black American piano schools, like ragtime and boogie-woogie, also left their mark on Abrams. In fact, he has expressed his desire to record an album of his own ragtime compositions, and on the Duets LP he played Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" in a semi-traditional arrangement. "Ragtime people were great people," he states. "They were very serious musicians. I wrote one rag and put it in terms of a waltz. I had things like Victor Herbert in there, but it was in strict rag form. I touched on James P. Johnson, too."

Abrams performed that composition, as well as an improvised boogie-woogie tune that he called "a direct tribute to Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, fast company," at a three-piano recital, which he played about a year ago in Chicago with local pianist Willie Pickens and AACM member Amina Claudine Meyers. "I instigated the whole thing with a left-hand figure that I borrowed from Jimmy Yancey. I always liked that figure because it's difficult; it gives a different feeling and provides a greater technical challenge.

"Boogie woogie is very difficult for the left hand," he continues, "and you have to keep the right hand doing things at the same time. I would recommend boogie-woogie to a pianist to strengthen his or her left hand. If a pianist can play it really well in the left hand, he can play anything. It's better than practicing Bach, and I say that even though I like Bach. It's a very difficult figure."

Abrams's professional career began in 1950, when he began writing arrangements for saxophonist King Fleming and his band. In 1955 he helped form a neo-bebop group, the MJT+ 3, which included trumpeter Paul Serrano and tenor saxophonist Nicky Hill (later replaced by George Coleman on tenor sax and Booker Little on trumpet), bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Walter Perkins, and Abrams, who did most of the composing and arranging for the group until it split up in 1958. One album by the MJT + 3, Branching Out [Trip (c/o Springboard International Records, Inc., 947 U.S. Hwy. 1, Rahway, NJ 07065), X-5025], is still available.

By the late 1950s Abrams had moved beyond the stage of assimilating ideas from established musicians, and was establishing himself as a harbinger of new directions in jazz. This step in his creative evolution was reflected in the work of the Experimental Band, a large ensemble put together by Abrams in 1961. "The idea for the band came from several musicians," he explains. "The idea of a workshop band started with [pianist] Jodie Christian and [saxophonist] Eddie Harris. We started it for the older, experienced musicians, but it never really got off the ground, because of disagreement over how to run it." Abrams continued to act as leader of a series of other innovative groups, however, until 1977, when he moved his base of operations to New York. In 1975 and '76 he directed two outfits simultaneously, one for veterans of the professional music world and the other for less experienced players.

In the midst of all this activity Abrams and some other musicians from this sequence of bands decided to pool their creative energy and direct it toward organizing an institution that would develop and promote serious black musicians and their art by offering them business and music training, and by sponsoring concerts and other outlets for their performance. Thus was the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians born in 1965.

"We had to form the AACM because of the basic nature of the music situation in this country," Abrams told the Chicago Daily News in 1974. "The people who decide what will be recorded are the business people, not the artists. It was, for us, a question of survival—black cultural survival." Today the AACM is a successful enterprise, sponsoring several permanent musical outfits, including Air, the Revolutionary Ensemble, the Creative Construction Company, the Art Ensemble, and the Fred Anderson Sextet. [Ed. Note: Further information about the current activities of the AACM can be obtained by writing to the organization at 1059 W. 107th Pl., Chicago, IL 60643.]

Abrams stresses that he and others within the AACM "came out of jazz ... all the way out of jazz. We were never there. We were put there in the sense of what we were called by the media. We have to come out from under that heading. I don't like all these words. They don't describe anything. You're not dealing with labels in music; you're dealing with forces. I think there has to be a reassessment on the part of the public as to what they're dealing with. I tell people to come to listen to us. Then after the music is over, I ask them to tell me what it is. I allow them to decide for themselves, and I'll accept their decision."

This dislike of labels coincides with the catholic nature of Abrams's tastes and sources of musical inspiration. "Whatever music is in the air, there's a chance that diligent musicians will pick it up," he says. "Musicians are attuned to music, but not everybody is able to incorporate every sound. Your own personality finally narrows down what you hear to what you like, and what results is style. But I try to incorporate everything I hear. If I hear it and it appeals to me, it goes into my memory bank. I really try to transcend any style. I let things develop. Of course I might discard some things fast. I discard things when I'm trying to change the rhythm. I’ll hear something that sounds like an old, worn-out rhythmic lick and say, 'I'm sick of that. I just can't use it anymore.' Then I'll leave a space open in the rhythm."

The structure of rhythm is one of the most crucial parts of the music for Abrams. He assesses his own progress as a musician largely in terms of his own use of rhythm. "When I hear myself on records, I hear things slowly changing," he observes. "And when you get into the rhythm, things change even more slowly. But when the rhythm changes, that's when you really change. You can change your harmony at any time, but your rhythm will stay the same. McCoy Tyner is playing different things, but rhythmically he's stayed the same."

Other musicians have won Abrams's respect for their work in this area; he has praised Art Tatum's "rhythmic concept —the expansion and contraction of his rhythm," for example. He also looks up to Jaki Byard and, for his widespread musical knowledge, Herbie Hancock, noting, "Hancock always displays a good touch, and he has insight not only into current styles but into past styles as well." But for other aspects of music, such as harmonic textures and the construction of inventive melodies, Abrams is apt to listen to the works of the classical composers. He sees Bach in particular as one of the most significant influences on the development of the bebop style of improvisation.

"Bach was a genius," Abrams states. "He was extremely innovative, and he was extremely revolutionary. Melodically bebop owes a lot to Bach. Bird [Charlie Parker], Diz [trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie], and [Thelonious] Monk were well aware of Bach's studies.

"When we think of what they call a II-V-I chord change—the movement of the second chord in the key to the fifth chord to the tonic—and Bach's lines, especially in the minor keys, we realize that we can hear that in bebop all the time," he points out. "So Bach has played a great role in melodic music. I think he's the only composer that young people—young people in the mainstream anyway, people who aspire to play bebop—see as worthy of including in their studies."

There are traces of many other European composers in Abrams's playing, though, partly as a result of his studies of Bach, Scriabin, Messiaen, and others, and partly because their music is "out there" to be picked up. "I've been compared to all sorts of people," he comments. "One critic said I had the knack of capturing Debussy, but I've never really listened to his music. Another said I had an uncanny knack of capturing Chopin; I have played Chopin, but I've never studied him. The German critic Joachim Berendt said that my playing was reminiscent of Scriabin and Ravel. Now, that's not at all unusual. I've played Scriabin, but I'm not that familiar with Ravel's music. Other people who are familiar with Ravel have put it out in the air, though, so I hear it. I'm bound to play things that I haven't deliberately sought out."

In the same vein Abrams points to Paul Hindemith, the twentieth century German modernist, as one of his main influences with regard to composition. Like many classical composers, Abrams seldom uses the piano for assistance while writing music. "I've done more writing not depending on the piano than I have depending on it," he says. "The piano would limit me as to what I could write. It would limit me in terms of what I like to hear, and there's more to it than that as well. So most of what I compose is written paper-to-paper, not piano to paper. I might play some chords on the piano and write that down, and then write some music over it without using the keyboard. You develop a healthy respect for the different sections that way, and you come to realize what each instrument is confronted with. Sometimes I view the orchestra through the piano in terms of range, but I don't limit myself to that view. I even write my piano part out like every other part when I compose for a group or band, so at the rehearsal I have to learn my part just like everyone else has to learn theirs."

Although he has recorded prolifically, Abrams has seen many of his albums released only in foreign markets. A duet LP recorded with bassist Malachi Favors, Sightsong, is available only in Italy on the Black Saint label, for example, and a solo piano record, Afrisong, is being distributed solely by the Why Not label, a Japanese company. Still, there is a wide selection of Abrams albums in America, capturing his work in a variety of musical settings. On only one of these LPs—Things To Come From Those Now Gone [Delmark (4243 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL 60618), 430)—does he stray from the acoustic keyboard to play an electronic instrument, using an RMI electric piano on one cut, "1 And 4 Plus 2 And 7."

"That was strictly for sound," Abrams says. "The composition was based on the sun and the moon. The changing aspects of the moon were depicted in the acoustic part, and the heat of the sun was depicted in the electric part. There's no comparison whatsoever between acoustic and electric pianos, though. The electric has nowhere near the touch.

"But I like the synthesizer," he adds. "There's a lot that can be done with it, though not as a substitute for a piano. You've got to have a good sound on the piano, and the piano has to be played from end to end. As long as I have a good instrument, there's no telling what I might do."

Despite the large number of records he has made over the years, Abrams is still unsatisfied with that part of his career. As he maps out his plans for the future, he includes the creation of a more accurate recorded reflection of his musical ideas as a high priority.

"There haven't been enough recordings to deal with all the projects I have in mind," he states. "I'm constantly after different sorts of projects because I have a healthy respect for so many eras of music. I'm constantly making an effort to capture different eras and different times. I like and respect so many musicians; it's a good feeling."

But Abrams does object to the suggestion that he is writing and performing "new music," for he feels that what is perceived as new is merely the repackaging of the tried-and-true ideas of the past. "You're always just incorporating," he insists. "It comes out like something new. Somebody recently asked me what was new. I told him I didn't know. He looked at me like I was crazy, like I didn't know what I was talking about. But that is how I feel."

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