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The Music of Muhal Richard Abrams

Andrey Henkin By

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New York Society for Ethical Culture
Featuring the Muhal Richard Abrams Double Trio
Trio One: Leroy Jenkins (vln); Min Xiao-Fen (pipa); Muhal Richard Abrams (ap, synth)
Trio Two: George Lewis (trom); Thurman Barker (perc); Muhal Richard Abrams (ap, synth)
October 13, 2001

The fall of 2001 has brought an exciting series of concerts to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Presented under the auspices of The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), heavyweights from the American freejazz scene present new ideas to those who will listen. The series began in September with the Oliver Lake Big Band and will continue in November with a double bill of the Andrew Cyrille/Michael Carvin duo and the Joseph Jarman Quintet.
October's performance highlighted the music of AACM co-founder and president Muhal Richard Abrams and featured a rare appearance by Mr. Abrams and some long-time AACM collaborators. Two forty-minute trio sets were performed at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (a converted church with sweeping pew-seating and high vaulted ceilings). While texturally quite different, the stamp of Abrams' compositional skills was equally evident in both.
The evening began with "Prelude to Reflections", a pre-recorded piece by synthesizer, sequencer and computer, played as the audience took its seats. Seeing avant-garde piano legend Burton Greene in attendance can only bode well for an evening's performance. The venue, even with relatively little publicity, was fairly well filled.
The first trio of Abrams, free jazz violin master Leroy Jenkins and Xiao-Fen took the stage shortly after 8 pm. Min Xiao-Fen is, at first glance, an emblem of tradition: Hair tightly pulled back into a bun, very formal evening wear and an ancient pear-shaped four-stringed Chinese lute. Her use of the instrument during this performance though took the audience completely by surprise. She actually was the most out, her contributions almost Sonny Sharrock-like in intensity! Further research revealed that the various skills (slides, rolls, slaps, harmonics, etc.) are the traditional technique for this more than 2000-year-old instrument.

"Trio Reflections I" began with a quiet duo conversation between Abrams plucking piano strings and Jenkins quietly bowing. Jenkins then dropped out in favor of Xiao-Fen, who unleashed flurries of notes and slides over sonic washes from Abrams' synthesizer. Jenkins replaced Abrams with pizzicato, the violin and pipa furiously arguing with each other. Abrams came in on piano for the full trio and a long free chamber music segment ensued. This resolved into a deliberate and droning scraping by Jenkins that metamorphosed into a compelling solo violin statement. While jazz has its fair share of violinists, most better known than Jenkins, few if any can match his creativity. Abrams reentered for a duet that melded avant fervor with classical splendor. Abrams explored the lower half of the keyboard with provoking arpeggiation, leading into an extended solo workout in the lower register. Xiao-Fen's pipa made one more brief appearance until a Jenkins-Abrams duet ended on a strong chord.

One observation common to many audience members was the unstructured nature of the pieces performed. While scores were clearly visible and the musicians followed cues for different segments, each participant seemed to be working within a general framework rather than playing composed solos. This format was more easily digested than pure free jazz and much more interesting than the traditional head-solo section-head style.

"Trio Reflections II" used, on the surface, a much more typical instrument combination. It continued the concept of the first trio piece (understandable since the whole evening's performance was written as a suite). Phenomenal trombonist George Lewis contributed a typically dynamic performance; His first since playing with Steve Lacy at this year's Montreal Jazz Festival. AACM mainstay Thurman Barker provided a rhythmic foundation on xylophone, vibraphone, trap kit and various bells. The piece began like the first with a duet featuring Abrams on synthesizer, this time using space sounds and an ethereal pipe organ. Abrams gave way to Lewis and his bright red plunger mute. The duet between Lewis and Barker was easily the highlight of the evening. Lewis' honks and bleats kept building in intensity, Albert Mangelsdorff's influence clearly present, with tasteful cymbal accompaniment. The cymbals then continued alone until Abrams and Lewis mixed hard-bop and classical elements in an extended section. Barker entered with single- and double-mallet vibraphone. The trio increased tempo until Lewis' trombone was left alone growling and yelping. The drums and piano reentered and the trio swirled into a chaotic frenzy. Barker had a short drum break leading into a beautiful trombone melody. A peaceful vibraphone solo brought the piece to a close.

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