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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Muhal Richard Abrams (1930 - 2017)

Muhal Richard Abrams. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.
By Martin Schray

Today we received the message that the great pianist, clarinetist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams passed away at the age of 87.

Abrams was one of the pioneers of free jazz, especially the Chicago jazz scene wouldn’t be same without him. In 1962 he founded the Experimental Band, a highly influential (but unfortunately unrecorded) group that included freer musical forms and which served as a springboard for several groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But the Experimental Band was far more than an orchestra that provided opportunities to make music, it was an institution which tried to bring musicians together as a collective in order to improve their economic and social situation, which is why it can be considered as the breeding ground for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), whose first president Abrams became in 1965.

As a musician Muhal Richard Abrams was deeply influenced by Art Tatum, especially the pianist’s rhythmic concept of expansion and condensation. In general, he proposed a different way for playing the piano compared to Andrew Hill, Herbie Nichols or Cecil Taylor, his compositions and his touch were different, his music was referring back to Scott Joplin and yet it was very free as well. On the one hand, Abrams’ style has always been floating and lyrical, on the other hand it’s full of clusters, rich in contrast and constantly moving.

As a leader Abrams released outstanding albums like Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1968), Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark, 1975) and Mama and Daddy (Black Saint, 1980). But I particularly love his contributions as a sideman or as a band member, for example on Anthony Braxton’s Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark, 1968, with Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith), the Creative Construction Company’s self-titled debut (Muse, 1975) and Jack DeJohnette’s excellent Made in Chicago (ECM, 2015).

Or, as Vijay Iyer put it, he was a man who consistently built upon his previous achievements, his music embraced a trajectory of growth and discovery.

Mural Richard Abrams was young at heart and wise in time (the name of his 1970 Denmark recording). He will truly be missed.

Abrams was an active musician until the end, listen to a 2017 performance at the Ojay festival with Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis:


Colin Green said...

A worthy tribute, Martin

Abrams was a very fine pianist. "Afrisongs" is one of my favourites, and his duo album with Fred Anderson, "SoundDance", is excellent. His works for larger ensembles, recorded for Soul Note, show him to be an arranger as skilled as Ellington. Another sad loss.

Martin Schray said...

Yes, "Afrisongs" is an album that should have been mentioned as well.

Lee said...

Really nice tribute, Martin.

Unknown said...

One of my all-time favourites with a very recognizable voice, sad to hear he passed away. Thanks for this warm tribute.

Anonymous said...

I have just listened again to 'Things To Come From Those Now Gone' and found it a very uneven album for similar reasons to those outlined by the reviewer on I continue to be baffled by the review of 'Things To Come From Those Now Gone' in the Penguin guide, which clearly treats it as a solo piano album. Does the Penguin review actually relate to a different album ('Afrisong', maybe?). Any thoughts, anyone?

Unknown said...

Very nice tribute Martin.

Martin Schray said...

I don't have the Penguin Guide at hand but "Things To Come From Those Now Gone" is definitely not a solo album. "Afrisong" is one, maybe they confused something. "Things To Come From Those Now Gone" might sound uneven, you're right, but then again it's a great presentation of free jazz's state of the art in 1975. I still think it's a great album.

David Sen said...

Muhal Abrams catalogue I find is uneven but his masterworks are the bigband/orchestra classics "Hearinga Suite" and "Blu Blu Blu" both show his composition and and arranging powers at a peak in the late 80's. The solo piano works are fine too, " Afrisong" is a great introduction, he should be in the top tier of pianist/composers.