Chicago's pianist "Muhal" Richard Abrams (1930) represented both a synthesis and
a revolution. His piano style synthesized both ancestral traditions
and avantgarde innovations in a deeply emotional and personal language.
His arrangements, on the other hand, created a new kind of music, that pushed
free jazz to the borders of classical music.
The whole of his work laid the foundations for the "creative" music of the
Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
Abrams formed the Experimental Band in 1961 (featuring the young Roscoe
Mitchell) that spearheaded Chicago's jazz revolution.
Levels and Degrees of Light (december 1967) was already a mature statement
by a musician steeped in the blues
(the ten-minute Levels and Degrees of Light, with
Penelope Taylor's wordless vocals and Gordon Emmanuel's vibraphone)
but rising towards a new level of awareness.
Despite some poetry recitation, the 23-minute The Bird Song
inaugurated a timbral counterpoint that used free jazz as the springboard
but maintained a solid grip on composition, or, better, on the
narrative dimension of the music
(Leroy Jenkins on violin, Anthony Braxton on saxophone).
Young at Heart/ Wise in Time (august 1969) contained two lengthy tracks:
the 29-minute solo-piano excursus Young at Heart, highlighting his
light touch and shimmering tone clusters,
and the 22-minute quartet jam Wise in Time
(Leo Smith on trumpet, Henry Threadgill on alto).
After Things to Come from Those Now Gone (october 1972), that contains more
traditional pieces (except the austere 1 and 4 Plus 2 and 7),
Abrams returned to the intimate highbrow aesthetic that was his specialty with
the seven solo-piano vignettes of Afrisong (september 1975), notably
Afrisong, Hymn to the East and Blues For M.
His music output then split into two. On one hand the duets, such as
Sightsong (october 1975) with bassist Malachi Favors,
Duets 1976 (august 1976) with Anthony Braxton (saxophones and clarinets),
Lifelong Ambitions (march 1977) with Leroy Jenkins,
and Duet (february 1981) with Amina Claudine Myers.
On the other hand were ensemble efforts that started with two quintets, the one
(led by Abrams, Braxton and Threadgill) for
Arhythm Songy and Charlie In The Parker on
1-OQA+19 (december 1977), in which
Abrams first experimented with the synthesizer, and the one
(Joseph Jarman on bass saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, flute, soprano sax;
Douglas Ewart on a plethora of reed instruments; Amina Claudine Myers on piano;
Thurman Barker on percussion) for Lifea Blinec (february 1978),
and quickly expanded to the septet of Spihumonesty (july 1979),
in which the ominous sounds of the synthesizer prevail over the lyrical sounds
of the piano,
to the tentet of Mama and Daddy (june 1980), with the
18-minute Malic, and finally to the full-blown
orchestra of improvisers for Blues Forever (july 1981), with
Chambea and Quartet To Quartet (that transitions from a sax quartet to a brass quartet)
and of Rejoicing with the Light (january 1983).
While the duets were often indulgent and rarely regained the magic of his
solo-piano performances, the orchestral pieces showcased timbral
sensibility, dense and almost chaotic harmonies, shifting textures and, in general, continuous change.
Abrams' multiple-personality disorder continued to produce relatively
uneventful duets, for example
Roots of Blue (january 1986) with bassist Cecil McBee,
Duets and Solos (1993) with Roscoe Mitchell and
Open Air Meeting (august 1996) with Marty Ehrlich,
impressionistic chamber recordings, such as
View from Within (september 1984) for octet,
Colours in Thirty-Third (december 1986) for various combos,
Familytalk (october 1993) for sextet,
Think All Focus One (july 1994) for septet,
Song for All (1995) for septet,
and, above all, ambitious orchestral works that
were festivals of deconstructed hard bop and free jazz:
Hearinga Suite (january 1989), Blu Blu Blu (november 1990) and
One Line Two Views (june 1995).
Abrams returned only occasionally to the solo-piano format, notably with the
29-minute Piano Improvisation on The Visibility of Thought (december 2000) and the
59-minute three-movement solo-piano meditation Vision Towards Essence (september 1998)
Abrams also composed Variations for Solo Saxophone, Flute, and Chamber Orchestra (1982),
Quintet for Soprano, Piano, Harp, Cello and Violin (1982),
Improvisation Structures I - II - III - IV - V - VI for solo piano (1983),
Odyssey of King (1984) and Saturation Blue (1986) for chamber orchestra,
String Quartet #2 (1985) and String Quartet #3 (1992),
Saxophone Quartet #1 (1994),
and a symphony for orchestra and jazz quartet, NOVI.
Streaming (january 2005) documents a session by Muhal Richard Abrams (on piano, percussion, flute), George Lewis (on trombone and laptop) and Roscoe Mitchell (on saxophones).
Spectrum (Mutable, 2010) contains
Muhal Richard Abrams
Romu, an improvisation by
Muhal Richard Abrams
Abrams' Mergertone, and
Mitchell's Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City (composed in 2002 and premiered in february 2003).
SoundDance documents two live improvisations with Fred Anderson on tenor sax and with George Lewis on electronics, laptop and trombone.
Abrams died in 2018
at the age of 87.
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