Muhal Richard Abrams Updates the Big Band
Muhal Richard Abrams is likely best known as a driving force behind the hugely influential Chicago co-op the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), but he’s also an underappreciated composer. Not unknown by any means – he won Denmark’s first Jazzpar Prize in 1990, before the international jury got around to David Murray, Lee Konitz, Tommy Flanagan and Roy Haynes. But Abrams ‘orchestra rarely got the attention it deserved in its ’80s and ’90s heyday. Maybe that’s because it rarely played outside New York – though I remember one knockout set at the Berlin Jazz Festival – and even in the Apple it did only a gig or two a year. But the best records Muhal made with his orchestra, or little big bands of 10 players or so, stand tall.
For AACM composers, every style and genre is fair game: free jazz, ragtime, bebop, contemporary classical, open improvising. Muhal set the tone for all that, and was also adept at conducted improvising – sculpting music in the air, a mimed graphic score. Add to the mix the rich legacy of the jazz big band, and the blues in its many hues, and you start to get the picture. Where spontaneous conductor Sun Ra‘s orchestra could be gloriously raggedy, Muhal’s bands are well polished. He’s a serious composer – not that he can’t have lighthearted fun.
Take his signature blues “Bloodline,” either from the 1983 album Rejoicing with the Light or 1990′s sterling silver Blu Blu Blu. It’s as old-timey as anything in the orchestra’s book. A jaunty two-beat/oompah rhythm underpins a jangly melody that borders on ragtime, capped by some stuttering stoptime. And then – after making us wait for it – he opens it out to a series of swinging, improvised blues choruses.
Muhal likes long sequences where many soloists have their say, the pianist included; everyone gets to sign off on the material. A plethora of fine soloists passed through these bands, including trumpeters Eddie Allen, Baikida Carroll and Jack Walrath, trombonists Craig Harris and George Lewis, Marty Ehrlich and John Purcell on reeds, Bob Stewart, Howard Johnson or Joe Daley on tuba, wailing guitarist John-Paul Bourelly, bassist Fred Hopkins, drummer Andrew Cyrille – and on Blu Blu Blu, Chicago’s late master whistler Joel Brandon, sometimes deployed like an extra horn, or flutey synthesizer.
Holding the blues close is one way Muhal stayed connected to his native Chicago after moving to New York in ’77. “Blu Blu Blu” the bumping piece is dedicated to Muddy Waters, with ace picker David Fiuczynski mining the sound and spirit of Mud’s wiry slide. The title tune on Blues Forever and “Down at Peppers” on the Abrams octet’s View from Within are likewise long blues conversations. Muhal testifies to the blues ‘capaciousness, its ability to transcend era and style, and permit endless shadings and permutations. But that’s only one corner of what he’s interested in.
The mother of his large ensemble records is Mama and Daddy made in 1980 by a compact tentet whose dark low end includes trombone, french horn and tuba. On “Balu” and “Malic,” noble low brass lines sound like they billowed right off Muhal’s keyboard. He loves to couple instruments – bass and massed brass, or piano and flute â€”in temporary unisons, recombining or defamiliarizing the band’s timbres.
The title track “Mama and Daddy” makes his best case here: a catchy theme, rendered in bright orchestral colors; a loping, bluesy ground beat; plenty of opportunities for the players to step out; effective little transitions that sound good in their own right. The crazy drive of Muhal’s first piano solo may put you in mind of early jazz, but listen to Thurman Barker’s radical commentary on cymbals and drums.
It’s typical of Muhal he’d put that catchiest piece last. Other artists sequence an album to start with a wallop, but he wants a set to build. His records may start slow and end with a bang: Rejoicing with the Light opens with an out-of-tempo art song, soprano Jeanette Moody singing like a quivering Theremin, and closes with a spinning-top swinger.
The Hearinga Suite of 1989 ranks with Blu Blu Blu as the fullest expression of his full-sized jazz orchestra (19 players in all). The lead-off “Hearinga” is his orchestral music in microcosm: it has complexity, sophistication and drive, some Julius Hemphill-like saxophone voicings, and hard swing Abrams (again) makes you wait for. Muhal plays keyboard synthesizer, on a whimsical theme with a bright circus calliope sound. (He studied electronic music at Governors State U near Chicago, and uses synth as a source of thin, precise timbres in ensembles, and for keyboard studies like “Conversations with the Three of Me” here.) There are echoes of Gil Evans ‘luminous orchestral writing on the sublime “Bermix,” a kind of concerto for cellist Diedre Murray. There and on the leisurely two-chord volley “Oldfotalk,” vibist Warren Smith is as elegant as Milt Jackson in the Modern Jazz Quartet. This is Muhal at his suavest – and that’s pretty suave.