Saturday, July 23, 2011

CD Review: Muhal Richard Abrams - SoundDance

Muhal Richard Abrams Duos with Fred Anderson & George Lewis

Muhal Richard Abrams played key roles in the early days of the Chicago's free thinking jazz scene where, among other things, he co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). His work might not be as well known outside his city as Anthony Braxton or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but he was recently inducted into the downbeat Hall of Fame and became a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. Plus, he has worked in all sorts of musical formats, so at age 80, calling Abrams a "jazz master" might be something of an understatement.

The two discs in SoundDance bring together two duo performances at AACM Concerts in New York with two of Abrams' Chicago comrades, creating two vastly different and equally challenging performances. "Engrossing" is another word to use when describing them as well.

Abrams teamed up with tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson in October 2009, in what is considered to be one of the saxophonist's final performances before his death. The rapport between them pushes and pulls, never letting either one, or the listener, lapse into anything easy. "Focus, ThruTime...Time" is divided into four tracks, breaking only when the mood shifts. Part 1 contains some fast chases, which leads into some slower, almost call and response sections in Part 2 where both listen attentively to each other, and really lock into an idea around the six minute mark.

What makes the music rewarding is how neither player fits into a certain stylistic box. Anderson is not a reed-biting free blower, nor does he attempt to wrench strong melodic playing into this format. Part 3 starts out sounding like he's borrowing intervals from "Giant Steps" but the overall piece feels even closer to a ballad, thanks to Abrams, who works just as easily in a sensitive mood as he does when makes ominous rumbles at the bottom of the piano.

"SoundDance," the 45-minute performance with George Lewis (trombone, laptop) requires a bit more of an open mind, especially in the early stages where silence is as much a part of the music as the spare, ringing chords that Abrams leaves hanging in the air. It's the kind of trick that makes you crank up the volume knob, only to run back a few moments later to turn it down when Lewis enters with a forthright trombone blast. (This assumes most listeners will check this out via CDs, rather than downloads, in which case, the earbuds should beware.) While listening to Part 1, sirens went down my street, lasting as long as any of Lewis' and Abrams' brief emanations, and fitting in just fine.

Throughout the disc, Lewis confounds the ears by using his laptop to create a third voice in the setting, sometimes sounding like bowed bass noises, other times recreating old school synthisizer bloops. He even sneaks into a mutant blend of drums and tuned bowls. By the final 17-minute section of the piece, he has picked up the plunger mute and the piano rumbles have developed fully. The suspense of the early stages have paid off by developing into something with substantial, sonically and melodically.

It's a challenge to pick up on all of this, but of course Muhal Richard Abrams didn't get to where he is simply paying homage to his role models.

[2014 addendum: I don't know what the keyword is in this review, but this page has become the target of spammers. So comments have been disabled.]