Pianist, composer, arranger
Image Pop-UpMuhal Richard Abrams.
Muhal Richard Abrams, known foremost as a pianist, composer, arranger, and organizer of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and founder of the AACM School of Music, has contributed greatly to the world of avant-garde jazz. He covers a broad range of musical territory, taking on styles in the African-American music tradition such as boogie-woogie and stride, as well as bebop, free jazz, and modern classical. Historians often compare his style to that of pioneering avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, visionary pianist Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago leader and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell, and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. Widely acclaimed for his ability to lead larger groups, Abrams is also capable of performing passionate solos and writing arrangements for smaller ensembles.
Richard Abrams, who added "Muhal" to his name in the late 1960s, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 19, 1930. Aside from a brief period of study at the Chicago Musical College, where he enrolled at the age of 17, and at Governors State University in Chicago, where he took courses in electronic music, Abrams received little formal training. Instead, he learned to play piano, as well as various other instruments, and compose music largely on his own, mastering these skills through rigorous practice and by observing and analyzing the works of other artists. His primary musical influences included pianist Bud Powell and legendary bandleader Duke Ellington.
In 1948 Abrams made his professional performance debut, and in 1950 began writing music for the King Fleming Band. During the 1950s Abrams became an accompanist for many prominent local and visiting musicians and gained some notoriety for his participation on the album Branching Out by MJT+3. Thereafter, his recording and/or performance affiliations grew to include the likes of drummer Max Roach, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, tenor and baritone saxophonist Sonny Stitt, multi-instrumentalist Eddie Harris, vocalist Ruth Brown, trumpeter Woody Shaw, and many others.
Beginning in the early 1960s Abrams began to forge a jazz revolution in his hometown of Chicago. In 1961 he led his first group, a short-lived orchestra called the Experimental Band. Featuring some of the city's leading improvisersddie Harris, Donald Garrett, Victor Sproles, and Roscoe Mitchellhe ensemble had initially formed as a rehearsal group in which the musicians encouraged one another to explore the full potential of their instruments. Over time, these artists and others emerged as a more formal collective known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Formed in Chicago on May 8, 1965, with Abrams as one of its most significant forces and first president, the AACM drew a great deal of inspiration from the New York-based revolution set in motion during the 1960s by saxophonist Ornette Coleman; tenor saxophonist John Coltrane; alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy; saxophonist Archie Shepp; pianist Cecil Taylor; and the Jazz Composer's Guild, a collective formed one year prior to the AACM.
Before long, the AACM's roster grew to include such figures as reedmen Joseph Jarman and Anthony Braxton, trumpeters Lester Bowie and Leo Smith, drummer Steve McCall, and violinist Leroy Jenkins. At once a music school, a finishing school, and a singular avant-garde movement, the AACM prospered over the years and invigorated the jazz scene in Chicago. AACM musicians played primarily "free" music full of instrumental variety, and performed original, highly expressive compositions. Some of the various groups that emerged from the AACM involvement include the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Creative Construction Company, Air, the Revolutionary Ensemble, and the countless combinations led by Braxton.
In addition to his administrative duties for the AACM, Abrams continued to build his own reputation. In 1967 he debuted with the groundbreaking Levels and Degrees of Light, returning in 1969 with Young at Heart/Wise in Time, a set showcasing his skills as a soloist. His next two releases, 1972's Things to Come from Those Now Gone and 1976's Sightsong, expressed Abrams's interest in exploring various styles, covering everything from hard bop and electronics to chamber ballads and opera. Moving from Chicago to New York City in 1977, Abrams explored variation still further with the instrumentally and emotionally complex 1-OQ+19, released in 1978, and the voice- and synthesizer-laden Spihumonesty, issued in 1980.
One of Abrams's greatest achievements was the ambitious Mama and Daddy. Recorded with a ten-piece group and issued in 1980, the set evoked chamber music through a masterful and balanced blend of strings, brass, and percussion. Such orchestral tendencies resurfaced with the acclaimed albums Blues Forever and Rejoicing with the Light, released in 1982 and 1983, respectively. Abrams then opted for smaller groups for 1985's View from Within and 1987's Colors in Thirty-Third before returning to a larger band on 1990's The Hearinga Suite.
Blu Blu Blu, released the following year, garnered Abrams further critical praise for his ability to move effortlessly between chamber music and other forms. After the 1993 release of both Familytalk and Duet, recorded with pianist Amina Claudine Myers, Abrams garnered accolades for One Line, Two Views. Issued in 1995, the set combined modern jazz and classical elements with African music. In 1997 Abrams paid tribute to composer/pianist Thelonius Monk with the double-compact disc Interpretations of Monk, Vol. 1, releasing a series of recordings he made in 1981 at Columbia University with fellow pianist Barry Harris. Proving again his inventiveness as a solo performer, Abrams returned with Song for All, also released in 1997.
Abrams remains involved with the AACM, serving as president of the organization's New York chapter. He also sits on the board of the National Jazz Service Organization and was formerly a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. Besides educating other musicians through the AACM, Abrams has taught courses in composition and improvisation at Columbia University, Syracuse University, the Banff Center in Canada, and the BMI Composers Workshop in New York. He continues to perform with his own ensembles and as a soloist, and composes large orchestra and chamber works as well. Some of his most notable compositions include Novi, for symphony orchestra and jazz quartet, and String Quartet #2, which was performed by the Kronos String Quartet in November of 1985 at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York.
Levels and Degrees of Light, Delmark, 1967; reissued, 1991.
Young at Heart/Wise in Time, Delmark, 1969; reissued, 1997.
Things to Come from Those Now Gone, Delmark, 1972; reissued, 2001.
Sightsong, Black Saint, 1976.
1-OQA+19, Black Saint, 1978.
Mama and Daddy, Black Saint, 1980.
Spihumonesty, Black Saint, 1980.
Blues Forever, Black Saint, 1982.
Rejoicing with the Light, Black Saint, 1983.
View from Within, Black Saint, 1985.
Colors in Thirty-Third, Black Saint, 1987.
The Hearinga Suite, Black Saint, 1990.
Blu Blu Blu, Black Saint, 1991.
Familytalk, Black Saint, 1993.
(With Amina Claudine Myers) Duet, Black Saint, 1993.
One Line, Two Views, New World, 1995.
Think All, Focus One, Black Saint, 1996.
Song for All, Black Saint, 1997.
(With Barry Harris) Interpretations of Monk, Vol. 1, Koch Jazz, 1997.
Balliett, Whitney, Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2001.
Swenson, John, editor, The Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Boston Globe, November 30, 1990; April 2, 1999; June 13, 1999.
Down Beat, November 1992; March 1994; February 1996; April 1997; August 1997; November 1997; November 1999; January 2001.
New York Times, March 23, 1999; December 8, 1999.
Washington Post, July 14, 1997; July 18, 1997.
"Muhal Richard Abrams," AACM, http://www.aacmchicago.org (January 18, 2002).
"Muhal Richard Abrams," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 15, 2002).
"Muhal Richard Abrams," Jazz Valley, http://www.jazzvalley.com (January 18, 2002).
"Muhal Richard Abrams: Biography," Black Saint, http://www.blacksaint.com (January 18, 2002).
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