A Conversation With Muhal Richard Abrams and the Warriors Of The Wonderful Sound
On April 28 at Montgomery County Community College, Bobby Zankel’s big band the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound will premiere a new piece written for the ensemble by legendary pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams. Recently named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and a member of Downbeat Magazine’s Hall of Fame, Abrams is a co-founder of the hugely influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and a composer whose work and influence spans the diverse history of classic, modern and avant-garde jazz. At 81, he continues to wield an enormous influence through his recordings and teachings, not least through some of modern jazz’s most important musicians.
At a recent rehearsal with the Warriors, Abrams explained how he would spontaneously cue soloists during the performance with a telling assertion: “Your decisions will be generated by what I hear,” he told the band. After a pause he added, “Which is how it should be.”
WRTI’s J. Michael Harrison spoke to Abrams about the project during a break, a partial transcript of which is below. Afterwards, however, I spoke to three of the longest-tenured Warriors about the experience. Saxophonist Daniel T. Peterson said that Muhal “exudes positivity and energy. I’ve always considered him a pianist, of course, but I’ve also noticed that he’s a coordinator, someone who puts people and situations together. That’s been very clearly part of this process. He’s been working with us and drawing from that and using it in creative ways and thinking of different ways to make the piece very personal.”
In comparison with recent compositions for the band by saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Steve Coleman, pianist Tom Lawton said, “The three of them have been completely different from each other. Each of these people has their own language; we have to bend to that somewhat, but I think this project has been the easiest to be ourselves while still doing that.”
Saxophonist Elliott Levin, whose relationship with Zankel dates back to 1974, when both played with iconoclastic pianist Cecil Taylor, called Abrams’ piece “some of the hardest saxophone stuff I’ve ever played. You have to concentrate from beginning to end. It’s a very clear piece but very, very challenging. I think it’s pushing everybody to be a better musician. It’s not easy to put all those elements together and make it musical the way that this is. I think it’s going to be an event, something really special.” - Shaun Brady
J. Michael Harrison: You have a rich history. You were born in 1930 which is a very interesting timeframe in the history of this country. Radio was in its embryonic stages, so as a radio person I was wondering: when you were coming up, was there music in the household? Because there wasn’t a whole lot of music on the radio.
MRA: Oh yes there was. We had these disc jockeys, a lot of black ones. And white ones, but we listened to the black ones, of course, because we were in an area where we listened to things that came to us. We heard everything, but we had a good concentration on black music because there were disc jockeys that played all kind of things, a lot of blues. And then we would go to theaters and hear the jazz musicians, like Duke and all of ‘em. They had a place called the Regal Theater and we’d go there and hear all the big bands. There were a lot of musicians in Chicago who were older than I am, and we would hear them and their bands.
JMH: And you would get a lot of that on the local radio?
MRA: Not them, but they would play more known people on the radio like Tab Smith, Louis Jordan, Jack McVey, and people like that. And those musicians played blues but they were great jazz players, also. It was all peppered in what they would do. As I became a musician and got older I realized how integrated they had that music, with the jazz and the blues all in the same breath.
JMH: I had a chance to see some of the rehearsal.You seem to be enjoying the interplay.
MRA: That’s the thing. In other words, what I want out of them is their inventiveness. We’re not playing standard music so they have more room to invent from scratch. You can invent in standard music too, of course, but in music like this is not a standard, mainstream set-up, so therefore you adhere to that. If you’re in a rectangular room, you’re not in a square room anymore so you deal with the rectangular room.
JMH: I would be remiss not to bring up the AACM. That was an important venture and still exists very strongly today. Did that come out of a necessity, a need?
MRA: Necessity is a good word. Yeah, it came out of a necessity. You can use other words, but that one’s good enough. When you have a need to expand your information and thereby alter your practices or the manner in which you practice, you research and study and then you have to find a forum by which you can express this venture. So that’s the necessity.
JMH: You’ve been in New York since about 1975, and at that same time you recorded the third recording for Black Saint Records. Can you talk about transitioning to New York, but also how important was Black Saint Records?
MRA: Black Saint was definitely an asset for a lot of us in terms of expanded visibility audio-wise and sight-wise. I made most of my recordings for Black Saint. Giovanni Bonandrini is a great man. He really loves the music. He’s a collector, that’s where he started, and then he took over Black Saint. But he was very consistent with the work that he did, bringing very great musicians through there. The transition to New York wasn’t much of a transition. We met and played with most of the New York musicians in Chicago. Oftentimes they’d come in and use a Chicago rhythm section. And the velocity of New York, I’ll characterize it that way, wasn’t that much different from Chicago but it was a bit more accelerated because of New York being an international city. We adapted to that quite easily, but there was some modicum of adaptation because it was a different place.
JMH: It’s amazing to see you work in this context. You’re self-taught. But to see you achieve to such a high level – I’m sure you must have words of advice for younger musicians that are trying to find their way now and maybe see obstacles.
MRA: I don’t really advise people, but I would say be honest and true about music and practice and study. Forever.
Bobby Zankel and the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound pay tribute to Sam Rivers on Thursday, Feb. 2 at 9:30 p.m., $7, at Tritone, 1508 South Street, 215-545-0475.
For more information on the April 28 concert with Muhal Richard Abrams, please visit: www.mc3.edu/campusLife/artsCulture/apr.aspx#mrabrams.