Over Thanksgiving break I roamed my archives. Meaning I spun Mofungo‘s Frederick Douglass, organized Michael Hurley concert flyers, and paged through a several copies of old magazines I’d contributed to. Fun to say the least. (Anyone need a copy of David Ware‘s 1978 From Silence To Music? Get with me.) Along the way I bumped into an interview I did with Muhal Richard Abrams that was published by Musician in 1990, around time The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint) was released.
The pianist-composer is celebrating his 80th birthday with a romp at Roulette on Thursday night. He’ll use two discrete ensembles, one with drummer Adam Rudolph and electronics whiz Tom Hamilton, the other with reed player Marty Ehrlich and bassist Brad Jones. Abrams’ talents as a provocateur have made their mark since the mid-60s, when he raised the Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians off the ground. The collective’s impact has been deep in the last half century. The effects of their experimentation continue to resonate in the most resourceful aspects of today’s improvised music.
Musically, Abrams’ contexts are boundless: extended solo piano excursions, octets playing slap ‘n’ tickle R&B tunes, trios that inject profound blue notes into chamber music settings…the list is goes on. Bet tomorrow night’s sounds fit right in with the work he has amassed during his career. Here’s a chunk of the chat we had 20 years ago on the veranda of his mid-town apartment.
In the ’80s you were able to maintain a somewhat steady group of players to work on your orchestral music. How has that affected your writing?
Certainly I’m stimulated by the fact that I have people who can interpret the music very well. It’s encouraging. But I write music the same old way. My contention is that I should write to the fullest limit and then seek out the musicians. Fortunate, yes, that they were close at hand on a regular basis; I’m eternally grateful to them. But I would have written the music the same way.
What’s the difference between what’s in your mind at home while you’re composing, and what you hear on the bandstand when it’s interpreted?
I like to be surprised all the time. At home I usually just sit at the table and write the music down. If I want to hear some special chord, I might go to the piano. But I don’t use the piano to write per se. Writing, especially when it’s geared towards orchestration, has alot to do with structure. And that’s something you can feel – it’s not abstract. After a time you begin to get an appreciation for envisioning shapes and colors without hearing them. There’s a skill to that. When I come to the bandstand I’m constantly surprised, because I haven’t heard a lot of the music for what it actually is. So when I finally do, I hear things I like and things I don’t. If you listen to yourself you learn alot about yourself. I never change the music, though. Once I write it down it stays – no erasing. Because there’s a certain process to listening. The things I didn’t like the first or second time I might catch up with [later on]. Maybe it was a bit too advanced for me to like in the beginning – and the the things that I did like are not really up to to the standards of the other stuff. It often reverses itself. That’s why I don’t discard or reject anything.
Earlier work, like Things To Come From Those Now Gone and Young In Heart, Wise In Time – did any of that present itself to you in the late ’60s?
A lot of it didn’t. I think that’s consistent with must muscians who seriously study on a constant basis, whether they can see it or not. And when I say study, I don’t necessarily mean out of a book. But someone who applies themselves on a regular basis.
Did it bother you that some people found the music befuddling back then?
I didn’t meet those people. I met people who liked it. I think that art has to bring the abstract world into a much clearer view for viewersor listeners. That’s part of what we do as artists. There are a lot of people in the category you’re speaking of that like a lot of those works today. It’s the same kind of process we just spoke of. Something new is rejected, but I think that has to do with one’s personal psyche. People enjoy the familiar and they have to wait a bit to enjoy the new. There are plenty of unshaped ideas in the mind, and if you went around spouting them, people would ask, “What’s wrong with this guy?” But as an artist I can bring out shapes from the subconscious. Or at least a few of them. That’s our work. Music itself is an abstract in the sense of the subconscious. You hear it, but you can’t see it.
Do you still paint?
Not a lot, but when it’s necessary. It’s all connected. One thing insspires another. Music goes on a record, then it needs to be extended into paint in order to be finished off. Like thsee flowers here. I’m fascinated by them. In fact I’m going back upstairs to get a camera and shoot these huge bowls.
Do you hear historical elements of jazz improvisation in your music?
It’s definitely an extension of the past. I never leave the roots. Never. See, there’s a wide latitude for dealing with musical forms, and it depends on whether one chooses to expand or contract. But both are connected to what I see as my upbringing in music.
Some moments are fairly overt in their references. I’m thinking of “Bloodline” and “Down At Pepper’s.”
Sure. Those are almost literal. They’re dedications to some root position, know what I mean? The blues. Benny Carter’s a good friend of mine. I learn a lot just by listening to those people, and I just want to express my thanks.
You went to see Muddy Waters in Chicago?
Oh yeah, Muddy Waters, Little Walter. But remember in the early days of the music, everything got played: blues, bebop, stuff for dances. Ellington, I saw him a fair amount. There was plenty of access because those bands often played in black neighborhoods, because they were restricted. So we mingled together.
One of your strengths is communicating a blues feeling without overtly employing traditional blues structures. I’m thinking of something like Mama & Daddy.
Remember, the blues is more than a certain form. The first set of circumstances that was called the blues didn’t necessarily have 12 bars. It just had a feeling and a sound. A cappella things, field hollers, they didn’t have the form, but they were the blues. The intervals I used to write Mama & Daddy are precisely the same sort of intervals that are used in the church, and a lot of folk music around the world. Most folk music has a form of pentatonic scales – France, Sardinia, wherever – with a blues type of thing in it. You need to know about the basic ingredients that makes the blues what it is, then you can strip it of the styles that have been imposed on it. But you don’t strip it of itself. That’s why people are able to construct so many different types of of blues – it’s there to be shaped, just as long as you don’t tamper with the essence.
What do you think when you read critiques of your work that claim European sources as an inspiration?
I think that’s a device people use to express their personal knowledge, because if you take the history and evolution of black music, it comes from people who were force to concoct their own way of doing things, and the things that they were exposed to were taken and rhythmatized in a manner that suited their purposes. Slaves were surrounded by many cultures. French, English, German. They had to superimpose themselves on these other situations. So when someone says “European influence,” that almost seems misplaced. Are they trying to separate one music from another? We’ve always had great black classical musicians. Freed slaves who were fortunate enough to gain access to educational institutions. Basically, we’re musicians. It’s music. You appreciate your roots and you express them, but you’re not limited by them. Because the process of music is a growth process. There’s nothing in this country that remains exactly as it was when it got here. Germans come here, they become German-Americans; same for Irish, French, Asian. In music, it’s the same. Everything is influenced by everything in America. Classical music is influenced by pop music and vice versa. Music will not let one factor isolate itself. Jazz actually is the first world music, because it has everything else in it in some form or stage: Chinese scales, Latin rhythms, and other stuff is added to the African base. You have people saying they play European jazz. They can say that because they’re incorporating how they feel. But we taught them that, and our music is unique in the annals of history. One of the purposes of this music is to give the world a feeling, some information about ourselves, a spiritual message. It’s a mission of sorts: dance and things that have to do with rhythm are what we deal with, and it reminds others about certain things within themselves. And so we learn from each other.
That’s a key aspect of the American experience.
Yeah, because it’s changed the world.
The Hearinga Suite sounds wholly American. It also sounds like you’ve synopsized much of what your music is about.
I’m controlling it, of course.
Is improvising taking a lesser role in your music these days?
No, it’s always been there. I’ve been through stages where I’ve had completely open playing with musicians. But also I have moments where I want to express compositional situations. Don’t get the impression that one thing is being discarded because another shows up in abundance. But when I’m writing for musicians that improvise, I always give them an expression area.
Did any of the AACM ideas stem from the collective playing, the polyphony, of New Orleans music?
It had nothing to do with New Orleans. It had to do with Chicago, period. Unless you’re speaking of the whole history of our music. I know, it sounds strange, but as time goes on people are beginning to see it’s not against anything, it’s for everything. For the health of humanity. Or at least that’s the way it appears to me.