NEWS: RIP Muhal Richard Abrams (19 Sep 1930 – 29 Oct 2017)

Muhal Richard Abrams
Picture from Pi Recordings website

Peter Bacon writes:

News is emerging of the death of pianist, composer and founding member of the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Muhal Richard Abrams.

Abrams was born in Chicago on 19 September 1930 and died on 29 October. His Wikepedia entry describes him as “an American educator, composer, arranger, clarinetist, cellist and jazz pianist in the free jazz medium”, but even that extended description seems to sell his talents short when one listens to the range of his musical output.

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Abrams studied piano from the age of 17 and spent four years at Chicago Music College. His professional career began in 1948 and in 1961 he formed the Experimental Band – members included saxophonists Eddie Harris and Roscoe Mitchell. It formed the kernel for what would become the AACM.

Val Wilmer, in her book As Serious As Your Life, describes Abrams at one point as the “spiritual leader” of the AACM, and at another as “the guiding light of the guild”. Many sources quote saxophonist Joseph Jarman’s words to describe the “Abrams effect”: “Until I had the first meeting with Richard Abrams, I was like all the rest of the ‘hip’ ghetto niggers; I was cool, I took dope… In having the chance to work in the Experimental Band with Richard and the other musicians there, I found something with meaning/reason for doing.”

The Rough Guide To Jazz notes that “Abrams remained the éminence grise in Chicago” right through the 1960s and early ‘70s, whether teaching or working as a pianist. He moved to New York in 1976 and toured internationally, getting the wider recognition he so fully deserved.

In 1990 he was the first recipient of one of the most prestigious awards in jazz, the Danish Jazzpar Prize. In 1994 he toured the UK with his Octet under the Contemporary Music Network banner.

His piano style is like a history of jazz in itself, his influences stretching from James P Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, through Art Tatum to Bud Powell and beyond. As a composer he takes in elements of the European classical tradition along with jazz from early to modern, and his music also embraces free jazz.

Writing in his book Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins offers this image: “It would be presumptuous retroactively to cast Muhal Richard Abrams as the eponymous Black Saint of Charles Mingus’ famed suite or the Italian record company with which he was affiliated for some fifteen years, but a better candidate would be hard to find.”

We hope to run a full tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams on this site in the near future.

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