Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Ahmed Abdullah’s Long, Strange Celestial Road

Danny “Pico” Thompson, Ahmed Abdullah, Noël Scott, ca. 1980s     Unknown Photographer

Ahmed Abdullah’s A Strange Celestial Road: My Times in the Sun Ra Arkestra (Blank Forms Editions), has been rightly hailed as a major addition to not only the literature about Sun Ra, but also to the autobiographies of African American composer-performers – and at 533 pages, it is approximately 150 pages longer than both Henry Threadgill’s autobiography and John Szwed’s benchmark biography, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Certainly, his relationship to Sun Ra and his work with the Arkestra over decades is central to Abdullah’s professional life. Soon after his enlistment, Abdullah garnered critical praise for his solo on “El is the Sound of Joy” at the Arkestra’s 1976 seismic Montreux Jazz Festival appearance, and consistently thereafter. However, Abdullah’s relationship to Sun Ra and the Arkestra is just one thread – gleaming yet ultimately frayed – in an unsparing account of his life. Some autobiographers minimize their foibles, shift blame to others, or altogether dodge the messes they have made along the way. Abdullah takes sole ownership of it all: shortcomings as a parent. drug use, infidelities, even a violent outburst against a partner.  These accounts provide necessary context for Abdullah’s artistic evolution and, more specifically, his complicated relationship with Sun Ra and his discipline.

While Sun Ra is not a boilerplate Virgil, there is a Dantean arc to Abdullah’s life journey, a long, winding climb out of hellish depths to Buddhism and his Beatrice – Monique Ngozi Nri, his wife of now over 30 years. Along the way, Abdullah created an under-appreciated wealth of music with the ensembles he led and the cooperative units he convened – not to mention the groups that eluded documentation, like iterations of Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy and the Ed Blackwell Project. Time and again, Abdullah’s details-rich accounts prompt revisiting his recordings, which lace through the decades since the 1970s. While the loft movement that incubated the Melodic Art-Tet (the coop with Charles Brackeen, Roger Blank and, initially, Ronnie Boykins) and the first editions of Abdullah (which heralded the trumpeter’s arrival on the legendary Wildflowers recordings) eventually fell prey to real estate development and the fickleness of the jazz establishment, Abdullah often found himself at the right place at the right time.

In this regard, Studio Rivbea was pivotal. Newly opened, it was the site of an early performance by the Melodic Art-Tet, a double bill with Clifford Jordan’s quartet. Repeatedly on the Melodic Art-Tet’s 1974 WKCR broadcast (released in 2013 on NoBusiness), the ease with which Abdullah soared – even on principal composer Brackeen’s more angular themes – proves to be essential to the music. His consistently ebullient tone, crisp articulation, and propensity to end a solo with an exclamation point instead of an ellipsis, placed him on a stylistic spectrum closer to Booker Little than Don Cherry. In short, Abdullah had massive chops and his playing exuded a winning positivism, which surely factored into Sam Rivers’ decision to include the trumpeter’s fledgling Abdullah ensemble in the 1976 Studio Rivbea Spring Festival, a lineup studded with veterans on the verge of elder statesmen status like Randy Weston and Rivers, New Thing stalwarts like Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray, and recently media-anointed artists like Anthony Braxton.

The third longest track on the original five Wildflowers LPs, Abdullah’s “Blue Phase” was not only in the distinct minority of performances employing either electric guitar or bass, it was the one track on the five original LPs that employed both – guitarist Masujaa continued working with the trumpeter, making a notable contribution to recordings like Dedication, a 1997 disc by the quintet known as Ahmed Abdullah’s Diaspora. The use of electric instruments was then derided in some quarters; even Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time was not immune from incoming. However, the trumpeter harnessed the energies of electric instruments and loft jazz, without compromising either. By the end of the 1970s, the group had become distinctively configured all-acoustic sextets, featuring Vincent Chancey and Muneer Abdul Fatah. Abdullah the group recorded two albums that became the inaugural releases of their respective labels: Live at Ali’s Alley (Cadence Jazz Records), which featured Chico Freeman in the front line, and Life’s Force (About Time), which included Jay Hoggard (although the live album was recorded a year earlier, it was not released until a year after the release of the studio date). Their salient common denominator was joyful opening tracks – the side-long “Happiness is Forever” on the live date, and “Eternal Spiraling Spirit” on Life’s Force, a practice Abdullah would maintain on future recordings.

Although African American opposition to South African apartheid first gathered steam in the early 1960s with recordings like “Tears for Johannesburg,” which concluded We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, it gained considerable political traction during the 1980s through the now dimly remembered efforts of Randall Robinson, TransAfrica, and the Free South Africa Movement. Abdullah was already sensitized to the plights – and the strengths – of Africans from his two weeks with the Arkestra at FESTAC ‘77, the Second World Black and African of Arts and Culture in Lagos. While he met important African artists like Dudu Pukwana, it was a concert by Miriam Makeba that was transformative, inspiring Abdullah to include South African music in his performances and recordings. (Abdullah’s criticism of Szwed’s book is that it did not emphasize the importance of Sun Ra’s music in this period.)

Because the ‘80s were fallow in terms of recording opportunities for Abdullah, there are few examples of this practice, and even fewer that were issued contemporaneously. The most representative was his rendition of Makeba’s “Mayibue” (usually spelled “Mayibuye”), the opening track of 1987’s Liquid Magic, the first of two albums he recorded for Silkheart. “Mayibue” has the lilting melody and sway-inducing groove commonly heard in kwela; Abdullah’s quartet gradually raises the temperature to gently prod soloists to stretch out, without disrupting the tune’s melodic uplift and rhythmic buoyancy. The interaction between Abdullah, Brackeen, Malachi Favors, and Alvin Fielder, has both effervescence and gravity, resulting in a sound comparable to the pre-exile recordings of the Blue Notes.

Abdullah’s first treatment of Makeba’s “Amanpondo” was only issued in 2012. The exuberant concluding track of The Group’s Live (NoBusiness), it is a tour de force by a largely overlooked all-star aggregation with Billy Bang, Marion Brown, Andrew Cyrille, and Sirone, assembled by Abdullah in the mid-80s. Abdullah’s extensive booklet notes is titled “Interdependence,” reflecting both the quality of the music and their approach to concert production. Throughout the unflagging 25-minute performance, The Group’s intricate banter – especially among the strings, Fred Hopkins also being on the gig – boosts the soloists at every turn: Brown is fluid and assertive; Bang saws ecstatically; Cyrille throws flames with every stroke, and Abdullah simply nails it.

As Abdullah points out in his memoir, The Group emerged concurrently with a new wave of activity in Brooklyn, with concerts of adventurous music being presented at the Prospect Park bandshell and other locations. Musicians of Brooklyn Initiative (MOBI), founded in 1985 by Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake, and Cecil Taylor, set out its own agenda for concerts and festivals. Bowie invited Abdullah to an early meeting, where he signed up for the communications committee. By this time, Abdullah was already a DIY veteran, negotiating with venues, doing publicity, and generally making it happen. Through MOBI, he met Philippa Jordan, a British agent, who put European dates on his itinerary. Their personal relationship raised Sun Ra’s ire whenever their orbit merged with the Arkestra’s.

By the early 1990s, the Arkestra became increasingly secondary to his own projects, Abdullah made gigs and tours as Sun Ra’s health declined – his just-the-facts details are discomforting. Even after Sun Ra returned to Birmingham for his final Earth days in 1993. Although the mantle had been passed to John Gilmore, the reticent tenor titan was not a business type. Abdullah tried to steady the wobbling Arkestra after Gilmore passed in 1995, but was confronted with dysfunction and deception. Marshall Allen was not up to speed to handle both the music and the business; others interceded with self-serving agendas. Abdullah was soon entangled in and stung by internecine politics, prompting him to again leave the Arkestra mid-decade. When he thereafter engaged with the Arkestra, he remembered early advice from Miles Davis: “Never turn down a gig; just ask for more money.” It worked for a minute. However, the relationship continued to sputter until it exploded in 1998 when Abdullah attempted to mount a Sun Ra All-Stars project with the estate’s approval; competing interests for the brand name resulted in legal threats and burnt bridges.

However, the late 1990s and the aughts saw the release of several gem-like recordings documenting Abdullah’s ongoing refinement as a composer-bandleader. Abdullah’s connection with South African music was represented by a new take on “Amanpondo” that opened 1997’s Dedication (CIMP); however, it is Abdullah’s ability to fuse bright melody and fierce rhythmic drive on pieces like “Song of the Force” and “Song of the Holy Warrior” that distinguished the sole album with Diaspora, a quintet with Carlos Ward, Masujaa, Alex Blake, and Cody Moffett (a decade before, his father Charles anchored Abdullah’s Solomonic Quintet, which was also an early platform for David S. Ware). The early 2000s saw Abdullah working with Alex Harding in NAM, a cooperative quartet with Masa Kamaguchi and Jimmy Weinstein: the blend of Abdullah’s piquant muted trumpet, Harding’s husky baritone saxophone, Kamaguchi’s bowed bass, and Weinstein’s malleted cymbals and toms buttresses the solemnity of Abdullah’s title composition for Song of Time (Clean Feed), recorded at the 2001 Vision Festival. Harding was also part of Abdullah’s Ebonic Tones, a quintet rounded out by Bang, Blake, and Andrei Strobert, documented on Tara’s Song (TUM). Dedicated to his daughter with Nri, Abdullah’s title piece is tender, reflective, and deeply rooted in the blues, the highlight of an album largely devoted to works by composers as diverse as Gigi Gryce, Frank Lowe, and early Sun Ra – the lovely ballad “Tapestry” and the gently grooving “Fate in a Pleasant Mood,” both featuring winsome vocals by Abdullah.

The rupture with the Arkestra prompted Abdullah to find alternative ways to present Sun Ra’s music, the first being a series of Carnegie Hall-sponsored concerts in homeless shelters, which ultimately led to his most monumental tribute to Sun Ra, 2004’s Travelling the Spaceways (Planet Arts). For this project, Abdullah brought together close colleagues like Bang, Masujaa, Harding, and Cody Moffett, onetime Arkestra member Craig Harris, and vocalists Nri and Miles Griffith, naming the ensemble Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra, which was Sun Ra’s deconstruction of the word Diaspora. Abdullah and Salim Washington’s arrangements maximized the heft provided by trombone and tenor and baritone saxophones, the contrasting string colors of violin and electric guitar, and the highlights of Abdullah’s muted trumpet. Travelling the Spaceways makes the case that the music of Sun Ra, like that of Ellington, Monk, and other composers, should be interpreted frequently and freely.

Seeing a notice that the Arkestra would perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center in October 2013, Abdullah contacted Marshall Allen; the past was shelved, allowing Abdullah to don a space plate once more. In 2019, Abdullah and percussionist Francisco Mora-Catlett joined forces as Diaspora Meets AfroHORN to record Jazz: A Music of the Spirit, Out of Sistas’ Place. Otherwise, Abdullah’s energies have been focused on creating his own music, as well as being Artistic Director of Sistas’ Place, the historic Bed-Stuy venue, and teaching at the New School. Arguably, the only deficiency of A Strange Celestial Road is that Abdullah was not nearly as expansive about his recent activities as he was about his years with the Arkestra; by that point in the narrative, it is obvious that the book’s most compelling story is not Sun Ra’s, but Ahmed Abdullah’s.


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