Muhal Richard Abram's Spiral
Reading a review of Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago album in the April 2015 issue of Downbeat, I saw the name Muhal Richard Abrams among some other stalwarts of Chicago jazz and was instantly drawn to my vinyl collection to pull out his 1978 album, Spiral-Live at Montreux 1978. Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, it finds the pianist in peak form, forever exploring and synthesizing a sound he began in the 1960s as a founder of the AACM, The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. The AACM spawned The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jack DeJohnette, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Amina Claudine Myers and many more.
Abrams was a post-Cecil Taylor pianist and embraced all that entails. His solo piano works moved from pointillist attacks to rollicking stride to elliptical circumnavigations of melody back into some boogie-woogie and then inside the piano, scraping the strings like a guiro, painting sound pictures like an old George Crumb piece. And that’s just ”D Song”, one of the neutral, faceless titles hiding a depth of emotion and expression. A gong signals the move into “String Song,” a glistening set of tuned chimes and gongs that brings a surprisingly meditative moment in the midst of the storm.
Producer Michael Cuscuna and engineer Martin Pearson record the piano and percussion with a super-wide stereo spectrum, creating a slightly unrealistic, but completely enveloping sound field. They immerse you inside Abrams’ explorations, putting you at the center of his swirling universe, like the earth traveling through space, notes orbiting like planets, shooting like comets and floating like asteroids. It makes you understand why poet Amus Mor said in his liner notes for Young at Heart-Wise in Time that Abrams was “a working cosmic man who creates cosmic music.”
Recorded live, side one seems like a warm-up, Abrams firing in all directions. By the time he hit his third piece, the 20 minute long “Voice Song” he had settled in, able to alternately ruminate on bluesy, ballad-like phrases and then send out scatter shot melodies rippling up the key’s like a Tasmanian Devil on hallucinogens. As much as Abrams is playing notes, he’s carving up space, creating sculptures in the sky, tearing them down and building them up again. It’s a brilliant performance that makes you wonder why Abrams is usually slotted to the backside in conversations of 70s jazz greats.
It’s so hard to believe how much of the music came out on a major label in the 1970s, in this case, Clive Davis’s Arista Records. Under Steve Backer’s guidance, they released bleeding-edge avant-garde albums on both the main Arista label and imprints like Novus records right alongside Barry Manilow and the Bay City Rollers. Backer passed in 2014, but I’ll take his legacy over that. It’s good to know that Muhal Richard Abrams is still going at 84.