In April 1999, I conducted a phone interview with singular pianist, composer, and thinker Muhal Richard Abrams, who died Sunday at his Manhattan home at age 87. I was writing an article about the Chicago native in advance of a special performance at the Cultural Center in his honor—Mayor Richard M. Daley had proclaimed April 9 of that year Muhal Richard Abrams Day in the city.
I remember being nervous about chatting with such a towering figure—a cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), he provided the organization with sure-handed leadership for decades, operating with thoughtful clarity and an unshakable sense of purpose. I hadn’t thought enough about the artistic, professional, and social hurdles Abrams had confronted in his decades of advocacy on behalf of the African-American avant-garde, and I don’t doubt I sounded naive and a little glib—I tended ask about isolated topics or ideas, without understanding the full magnitude of what he and the AACM had accomplished. Abrams didn’t suffer fools, and several times I got flustered when his answers focused on the lack of clarity in my questions—but now I understand that in his own way he was forcing me to get my shit together and engage more thoughtfully. Each time I went off the rails, he slowed down and tried to help me.
People will undoubtedly remember Abrams in a million ways, because he achieved so much. I love his recorded body of work, especially the large-band albums he cut from the 70s through the 90s. And his practice of creative self-determination helped change the shape of jazz and improvised music for everyone. Like most founding members of the AACM, he refused to allow the term “jazz” to limit what he was doing, and he worked not just in improvisation but also in heavy-duty composed music. He set an example for how to define one’s art. He last played in Chicago in 2015 at the Chicago Jazz Festival, leading an iteration of his Experimental Band—formed in 1962, it was a sort of workshop group, and gave rise to the nucleus of the AACM. As a volunteer on the programming committee, I was able to be backstage after the performance, where the likes of George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, and Wadada Leo Smith all lingered—Abrams was clearly the father figure of this astonishing group of artists, and the respect they accorded him was palpable in every gesture and expression. It was intensely humbling.
Abrams was so influential and prolific that it’s impossible to sum up everything he did, but nothing speaks for him as profoundly as his music. Below I’ve embedded two pieces, beginning with “The Heart Is Love and I Am,” the opening blast from his brilliant 1983 album Rejoicing With the Light—cut with an all-star big band featuring the likes of trumpeter Baikida Carroll, reedists Marty Ehrlich and John Purcell, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and trombonist Craig Harris. It’s followed by the first section of a four-part piece called “Focus, ThruTime . . . Time->” from his 2011 album SoundDance, a series of duets with either saxophonist Fred Anderson or trombonist Lewis; this one features the former.
Meridian, Hoquet (Accidie)
Keller Quartett, Cantante e Tranquillo (ECM)
Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal, Hide Ye Idols (Loyal Label)
Wolf People, Ruins (Jagjaguwar)
Lars Gullin, Fine Together: The Artistry of Lars Gullin (Universal/Sonet)