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Friday, July 31, 2020

Muhal Richard Abrams – Celestial Birds (Karl Records, 2020) ***½

By Troy Dostert

One of the great innovators in avant-garde jazz and an essential figure in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Muhal Richard Abrams established a formidable legacy during his almost five-decade recording career. A fearless, trailblazing pianist and composer who drew upon the full scope of African-American music yet ultimately pointed toward still-unexplored territory, Abrams’s influence can’t be overstated, and hence it’s inevitable that archival releases begin to consider specific facets of his oeuvre. In this instance, Karl Records has assembled four of Abrams’s pieces from across several landmark recordings, with the intent of focusing on his “widely unknown electronic compositions.”

Whether these pieces are “unknown,” at least to readers of this blog, is debatable, since all four have been previously issued, on albums most fans of Abrams will already be familiar with. But that’s not the only ambiguity here. The bigger question concerns the criteria for “electronic” music, and whether “Bird Song,” the first and most substantial cut on the album at over 22 minutes, qualifies. Taken from Abrams’ first record, Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1968), the music includes some of the pillars of the free jazz community in the late sixties, such as Anthony Braxton, Thurman Barker, (Kalaparusha) Maurice McIntyre, and Leroy Jenkins—and it’s quite a feat of music-making, with an intricate compositional logic that still accommodates a maelstrom of collective improvisation during the second segment of the piece, after a lengthy spoken-word section featuring David Moore. But where are the electronics? Unless the numerous bird sounds during the second half of the track count (and there’s no indication in the liner notes or credits that these were electronically produced), this is a head-scratcher. The liners do emphasize the presence of substantial reverb on this version that was for whatever reason removed from the Delmark CD reissue in 1991—and there is a lot of reverb here— but even though many listeners may not have heard this version, it’s hardly a pathbreaking use of electronics, especially compared with some of Abrams’s other efforts (see below). Moreover, from a listener’s point of view there is the additional question of whether this version actually suffers by comparison to the other one, especially as the reverb exacerbates the noisy, somewhat cluttered mix that is one of the record’s shortcomings. In any event, in terms of electronic innovation, the other three cuts arguably have a lot more to offer.

“Conversations with the Three of Me” is a solo piece taken from a much later album, The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989). It highlights the more reflective side of Abrams’s playing, at least at first, delving into his distinctive chromaticism with a series of patiently-developed chords before abruptly turning to the synthesizer, after which the piece becomes significantly stranger, almost wholly disconnected from what’s come before. Multiple voicings and effects are used, creating an unusual mix of sounds possibly requiring overdubbing. It’s a startling piece, particularly with the juxtaposition between the piano and synthesizers, and offers a glimpse of Abrams’s eagerness to unsettle his listeners, but the music does have a transfixing quality. Then we have “Think All, Focus One,” the title track of Abrams’s Black Saint album from 1994, and it’s another solo piece with a cornucopia of electronics, including something akin to an electronic harpsichord and even a drum machine. Anyone wondering where Abrams found the creative wherewithal to orchestrate some of his most memorable big-band charts should look no further, as the breadth of his vision is absolutely evident in a piece lasting just five and a half minutes.

The album concludes with “Spihumonesty,” perhaps the most fully realized use of synthesizers on the record, and the title track from Abrams’s 1980 album on Black Saint. This piece sees Abrams alongside George Lewis (also on synthesizer) and Yousef Yancey on theremin. Listeners familiar with Lewis’s (and Richard Teitelbaum’s) electronics on the iconic Homage to Charles Parker (Black Saint, 1979) will hear echoes of that here, but really the track is quite remarkable in fusing the playing of all three musicians, creating a hypnotic piece of music that is more than the sum of its parts, a devilishly clever use of synthesized sound in a cohesive, atmospheric musical statement, with enveloping waves and tones that possess an almost mystical power. It does leave one wondering about what Abrams might have been able to do with a sustained opportunity to develop his interests in synthesized music, instead of sprinkling his more experimental efforts piecemeal throughout other projects. Quibbles aside, Karl Records has gone in the right direction in opening up that question.