The Turnaround!

Previously Published Articles, Essays and Reviews
Bill Shoemaker

jazztimesThis article originally appeared inthe March 1997 issue of JazzTimes. Appended to the article are the textsfor the Equipment and Listening Pleasures sidebars that were part of the magazine's format at the time, as well as the cited 1995 text.

Muhal Richard Abrams: Focus On The Vastness

Given the importance of Muhal Richard Abrams' role in American music over the past thirty years (for a synopsis, see 25 Who Mattered Most, in the September '95, Silver Anniversary issue of JT), there has been astonishingly little written about him in the US jazz press beyond the occasional record review. The reason is simple; Abrams' music and ideas, to appropriate his comments about his listening habits (see side bar), don't fit in the box. Abrams' newest album, Song For All (Black Saint), which features a sterling septet and, on the title piece, his daughter Richarda Abrams' rich contralto voice, is a case in point. Not only is each of the program's eight bold compositions thoroughly different from the others, their substance can only be approximated by the current critical lexicon of glib alliterations and funked-up hyphenated terms. It's not that the music is unapproachable; it's just spin-proof.

Nor is Abrams unapproachable. He is firm about the ground rules for interviews: he only wants to talk about the present, he doesn't want to comment on others, and he wants both the questions and the answers printed. In conversation, however, Abrams is engaging -- he is also an acutely active listener. He has the same impressive presence on the phone as he does in person, he has a warm resonant voice even when he's telling you you've got it wrong, and he has a pure laugh. And, he's willing to talk as long as it takes; the rub is that only about a half-hour of conversation will fit into the 2,000-word box.

Bill Shoemaker: It's been thirty years since the formation of the Experimental Band and the AACM, and even though one can consider your work as a composer and a pianist independently of the cultural, political, and economic issues addressed by the AACM, your work takes on a broader meaning, at least for me, when you also consider your leadership off the bandstand. So, for me, your activities provide a measure of the advancements creative music has made in the United States. What I see are advancements on what I would call an institutional level, in that the Chicago Jazz Festival presents a 30th anniversary Experimental Band performance, the Library of Congress, through its McKim Fund, commissions a work for violin and piano, facilitating an Orchestra performance in Washington, and so on. But, those occasions are rare, they take an extraordinary effort to realize, and there is not a corresponding set of market-driven forces to extend these gains. How do you assess the advancement of creative music over the past thirty years? What are the issues that you feel should be addressed?

Muhal Richard Abrams: First of all, I think we should focus on what one might view as one's mission, a path that one is all about. I think that focus on the music is not about success, and things of that nature. Of course, if you engage in a particular profession, you want to make a living at it. That has been pretty equal to my work through the years. I have subsisted from performing and composing music. That in itself, to me, is success. On the other hand, in terms of the music, I think the fact that the music is going, and the musicians are composing and performing, seems to focus on another area, an area that says that consistency in one's chosen work brings it own type of return. That's the important thing. We're talking right now; you know what I mean, because I'm still here. Right?

Shoemaker: And you took the call.

Abrams: I'm still here and you, thankfully, seem to be a person who appreciates what is going on and what has gone on before. I think that is equal to what the input has been. I think sometimes we have to look a situation for what it really is, and what outside forces would imagine it to be. The creation of forms sometimes gets confused with the imitation of appearances. They're both valid. Do you understand?

Shoemaker: I'm letting it sink in.

Abrams: Let me say this way. The creation of forms in a concentrated manner is a slow process, but the imitation of appearances is a quick process. General public perception and media focus are on the quick process because they don't focus long enough to see the creation of forms. That's why what I said first is the real answer to your question: what is the focus of the practitioner. That's the important thing, because the type of return one seeks determines his output.


Shoemaker: For me, that's the difference between commercial music and creative music. Commercial music is a commercial enterprise that involves music, something motivated by a financial return, something that's fueled by the bottom line, whereas creative music is something that someone gets into for the long haul for a much different set of purposes.

Abrams: Yeah, but I would also say this. It's ambiguous when you speak of creative music in that way. If you are speaking about people engaged in creative activity that extends beyond the mainstream, then OK. But, there are a lot of people doing creative things, and some of them are in the mainstream.

Shoemaker: Sure. Mainstream doesn't necessarily mean commercial. That's a good point.

Abrams: I think when an activity extends into the area where you find newly created forms, created from a personal point of view, then that's an extension. That's extended creative music. It's not totally dependent on the imitation of appearances. All music is good in the sense that somebody likes it, so I don't think one thing can cast an indictment on another. But, I think that when we approach the question of whether this particular activity, or that particular activity, has been successful, we have to assess the focus of the practitioner. If one engages in a purely creative endeavor in an attempt to create new and personal forms, then that person would have difficulties if they placed reward before the work. If that person is concerned with being accepted, they will have difficulties in a purely creative endeavor. That's why I say that the focus of the practitioner is equal to the output.

Shoemaker: How would you characterize your own focus?

Abrams: My own focus? Oh ... I love to create situations that I've never encountered before, which is not the easiest thing in the world because we're creatures of habit. There are so many possibilities. I have learned more about possibilities than I could ever use. I'm engaged in that, while at the same time, I am having a healthy respect for the past work of others. It lends itself to a whole music world. Does that answer your question?

Shoemaker: It connects to a sense I have about your work, that there are very few specific statements you can make about your work in terms of approach, method, or style, that hold up for long, that aren't undermined by your next work. To me, your music is about discovery, searching...

Abrams: That's not what I said, though I understand how you would interpret it that way. I'm not searching for anything. I'm addressing the whole revelation of creating a new way of doing something. I'm aware that there is more there than I could ever perceive or create in one lifetime. That's the way it is. There's too much there for everybody. But, the idea that it's there and that I can challenge myself to create some bit of personal concept of that vast storehouse of possibilities ... that's what I'm saying. It's not a search. It's a continuous work or effort to see a personal achievement in regards to what I see as the vastness of possibilities. OK?


Shoemaker: That's what's unique, in my interpretation, about your perspective, that the past is part of these possibilities, that you can make it new, and in effect the past becomes part of the present and future.

Abrams: True, the past is in there, because no one is above mimicry. We're not above mimicry because the imitation of appearances is part of our education. Mimicry is educational when someone wants to learn about a particular style. Take jazz -- that's what it is, a particular style of music. To learn about jazz, one has to investigate the collections of languages that have been developed and called jazz. So, that type of mimicry is like learning French or Spanish. You have to go study Spanish...

Shoemaker: Do the exercises, learn the grammar...

Abrams: Learn the grammar and learn all the parts to the language. Now, maybe your intention is to take the Spanish and combine it with the French and the German and the Portuguese and the Japanese and the Chinese you have learned, in order to become more appreciative and fascinated by the fact of languages. Then, you're in another area completely, because you're confronting the wonder of language itself, although you're aware, through the imitation of appearances, about these particular languages.

Shoemaker: Is there a point where the sophistication of usage from these language pools reaches a point where it becomes the creation of new forms?

Abrams: Yes, you can enter the world of creating forms and creating languages that way. Let's say we're having a conversation and I say two words in Spanish, three in Chinese, five in Japanese, three in German, and then I just made up some other stuff, and give it to you in one statement (MRA attempts such a statement, gets tongue-tied, and laughs) ... I didn't say it was easy. But, the idea is that at that point, you're starting to create a new form out of existing language pools you have learned from mimicry. In terms of my own view, my respect is keen for what I perceive to be the best in any particular style I have encountered. I have a healthy respect for it, but I'm aware that it was formed out of the raw material in that vast storehouse of styles and forms, so I know it's possible to create personal approaches. What you just said a few minutes ago is correct in terms of the work becoming different, personal. But, creating something personal is for your own purposes, it's not a case of trying to convince somebody to hear things your way. It's personal. It's a very slow process because you have to wade through your habits in order to reach a small portion of newly created form.

Shoemaker: Do you end up not using a lot of material because it's too imitative?

Abrams: No. I don't have any throwaways. From time and experience you learn how to refine your approach. I don't have any waste. If I'm writing some music on paper or performing it in an improvised solo concert, once it's there I don't take it away. If I'm performing a solo concert, the first note I hit becomes a challenge to make something. That's that.


Shoemaker: The process propels you to a conclusion in the work.

Abrams: To a continuum. Conclusion ... well, I don't know about that word. You stop at a certain point, but I don't whether I'd consider that a conclusion. You just had to stop.

Shoemaker: It's not that it's done; it's just you that's done.

Abrams: Yeah. The human thing comes in. You say, that's enough, I've played long enough, the piece is long enough, which is a form of conclusion I guess, but not the conclusion. Our minds and imaginations can go much further than we can physically. Usually. I know if I could sustain ten straight hours of playing -- oh, man. But, something is going to get in the way. The brain is going to say, wait a minute, that's enough for today. But, the process goes on.

Muhal Richard Abrams' Equipment:

Abrams does not endorse any instruments. Generally, in a concert grand piano, Abrams looks for "balanced registers, graded well for a nice ride up the scale." Abrams prefers "multi-timbral synthesizers that give me a lot of voices, and that has good sample sounds."

Muhal Richard Abrams' Listening Pleasures:

"It would be impossible to name just three recordings. I listen to a range of things all the time. I listen to so-called classical music, mainstream jazz music, the extended creative music, Spanish music, all kinds of music -- and it's all going on at the same time. And, then there's the silent listening that I do, if you know what I mean. I don't think my listening habits will fit into the box."


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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