25 Who Mattered:
Muhal Richard Abrams

Bill Shoemaker


For its September 1995 Silver Anniversary issue, JazzTimes asked five writers to submit a lengthy list of names for consideration for 25 Who Mattered, and chose five from each. The others selected from Bill Shoemaker’s list were Steve Lacy, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and World Saxophone Quartet.

To discuss Muhal Richard Abrams’ impact on jazz’s last twenty-five years, a distinction between influence and usage must be made. Usage is mere appropriation. Countless saxophonists use John Coltrane’s vocabulary, but few have been sufficiently influenced by Coltrane’s quest for pure spiritual expression through a rapidly evolving art to discard Coltrane’s mannerisms for an original lexicon. Something of the inverse can be said of this founding father of the AACM, the Chicago collective that delineated post-Coleman jazz during the second half of the ‘60s. No one as pivotal to a jazz movement as Abrams has spawned so few imitators. But his influence -- the power to sway artists and affect the course of events purely by the example of his artistry, not just the stuff of his music -- is enormous. Abrams’ example has not only touched composers as diverse as Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, and Edward Wilkerson, and pianists ranging from Claudine Amina Myers to Don Pullen. He has also taken the polemics of artist self-determination he articulated through the AACM to countless conferences, grant peer review panels, and meetings of the board of directors for the National Jazz Service Organization, of which he is a charter member. Abrams’ example has touched everyone from the student musician to the corporate suit, and the music has benefited from it.

Still, were it not for his staggeringly diverse body of work, Abrams would not be such a formidable force. Abrams’ is an oeuvre that includes solo works utilizing piano, gongs, and tuned percussion, octets with six percussionists, piano duets, and numerable other departures from conventional jazz ensemble configurations -- his big band has even featured a whistler. Beginning with Levels and Degrees of Light -- a program that featured soprano voice, recitation, and Abrams playing clarinet as much as he played piano, this '67 date proved to be as portentous as the other historic albums in Delmark’s first wave of AACM dates – Abrams’ recordings have melded uncompromising spiritual purpose with exacting, erudite execution. Take the five orchestra albums Abrams has recorded for Black Saint in the last fifteen years as a representative sample: Mama and Daddy; Blues Forever; Rejoicing With The Light; The Hearinga Suite; and Blu, Blu, Blu. Whether delving into deep blues or shifting clusters through vividly contrasting instrument groupings, Abrams’s orchestra works are like ingeniously designed pieces of furniture, where the tight fit of the interlocking parts is reinforced by the mass of the wood and the pull of gravity. By joining abstract forms and traditional colors, particularly Chicago blues and Ellingtonian sepias, in unlikely combinations, Abrams has produced some of the most rewarding orchestra music of the past quarter-century. Still, that’s just one of his art’s many facets.

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