During a celebration of the life and legacy of pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams at the Community Church of New York on January 29, the vocalist Thomas Buckner recalled asking Abrams, before a concert, what the musicians should wear.
Abrams shot back: “How do you want to present yourself?”
That’s the animating question, the challenge, that Abrams, who died in October at 87, laid down — along with his implicit assertion that artists alone determine the answers. As a pianist, composer, and founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Abrams fostered an approach that values essences of sound and space more than notions of style and place, that promotes individualized conception as consistent with communal expression, and that elevates the jazz and blues player to the status of composer while humbling the master to the role of lifelong learner. His own recordings, especially 1989’s thrilling Hearinga Suite, stated many influences (early jazz, blues, minimalism, marches) yet sounded like none of them. His was a commanding authority that led wherever it wished — loudly or softly, tenderly or busily, with flowing melody or spiky dissonance.
Through more than a half-century, the AACM has grown from a collective of ambitious Chicago musicians to an engine of creative inspiration and practical outreach that has touched nearly all corners of modern music, offering sustenance especially to musicians steeped in jazz tradition yet unwilling to be confined by it. “Don’t give me a name,” Abrams said long ago about the word jazz, which is notably absent from the association’s name. “I’m not taking it.”
The Experimental Band, which Abrams organized in 1962 to workshop new compositions, was one clear and early precursor for the AACM’s credo. At January’s invitation-only memorial, “Trio Things,” one of Abrams’s last compositions, performed by pianist Joe Kubera, violinist Tom Chiu, and cellist Meaghan Burke, reflected that same unbound spirit. It began as spacious and calm, built into heightened drama, and carried throughout an idiosyncratic yet utterly organic flow that, more than anything else, has characterized Abrams’s music. It swung, but not in any conventional sense.
In his book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and Experimental Music, trombonist and composer George Lewis, himself an important AACM force, framed the conditions that gave rise to the association: a legendary South Side jazz and blues scene quickly evaporating; creative ferment demanding a broader jazz aesthetic; a transformation of African American identity and its representations; and, above all, a dedication to wherever collective purpose and individualized composition might lead gifted musicians in a troubled yet genre-free world. “First of all, number one, there’s original music, only,” Abrams had said at the founding meeting in 1965.
January’s memorial showcased the range and breadth of original music that follows, in one way or another, from Abrams’s philosophy as well as the relationships he forged. Playing solo drums and gongs, Reggie Nicholson achieved a cunning balance between tenderness and insistence. At the trap set, in duet with bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Andrew Cyrille was far more declarative yet no less tender. Much of the evening’s music had a ritual feel. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s “Marian Anderson,” in duet with pianist Vijay Iyer, and pianist Randy Weston’s “The Healer,” in duet with alto saxophonist T.K. Blue, arrived like incantations. Trombonist Craig Harris led a quintet through a section of his Brown Butterfly Suite with the exuberance of a tent revival. Alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich — in a trio with bassist Brad Jones and cellist Tomeka Reid — reveled in the playful ingenuity of the Abrams compositions “Bump’s Ballad” and “Charlie in the Parker.” Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, trombonist George Lewis, and drummer Jack DeJohnette used “JG,” Abrams’s tribute to saxophonist Johnny Griffin, as a springboard for riveting collective improvisation.
Henry Threadgill’s “Sail” — which Threadgill performed on bass flute, with organist Amina Claudine Myers, pianist Adegoke Steve Colson, and Lewis on trombone — offered a gorgeous abstract meditation on Abrams. Threadgill’s spoken testimonial, one of many that punctuated the music, was more literal. He recounted how Abrams invited him into his band, and his home. “I saw graph paper on a table,” Threadgill said. “I asked what it was for. He said that fugues and other kinds of music could be reduced to the graph. After that statement, we had a very long relationship.” Roscoe Mitchell recalled how he’d return again and again to Abrams’s basement apartment, always welcomed without judgment, and always able there, as on the bandstand, to “pick up wherever we had left off.”
Three hours wasn’t enough. At 10 p.m., multi-reedist and composer Anthony Braxton announced that the church had to close; he would not perform. Earlier, though, we’d heard Braxton’s declaration of Abrams as “a distinctly American hero,” who demanded that we “respect both our similarities and our differences” and that we “create culture from the perspective of community rather than individual achievement.”
You could see one measure of Abrams’s influence in the individual achievements of those gathered at the Community Church — numerous NEA Jazz Masters (Abrams was honored as one in 2010), MacArthur genius award grantees, and one Pulitzer Prize winner (Threadgill). But a more telling measure of that influence can be heard on bandstands throughout New York City’s current creative-music scene, which long ago transcended divisive notions of buttoned-up neoclassicism at odds with unkempt downtown defiance. Musicians now wear what they choose to wear and sound like who they think they are, based on real and sturdy senses of community. These players enjoy a freedom the AACM opened up. More than any particular musical idea, beyond all his wondrous compositions and improvisations, that what’s Muhal Richard Abrams meant.