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Remembering Interdisciplinary Composer Muhal Richard Abrams


This is FRESH AIR. Composer and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams died last week at age 87. He may be best known as the guiding light behind the long running co-op the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the AACM. In later years, Abrams mostly recorded as an improvising pianist. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says this lion of the avant garde was also a great jazz composer. This is "Mama And Daddy" from 1980.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Muhal Richard Abrams did a lot of good as the engine behind the free-thinking AACM collective and mentor to many other influential musicians. He was also an effective advocate for funding composers with backgrounds like his, steeped in jazz but eager to take on a wider world. Abrams composed electronic music, wrote for classical musicians and improvised in open settings, but he may not get enough credit as one of the late 20th century's great composers for jazz orchestra. Muhal came up in Chicago and loved to dip back into the wellspring of the blues.


WHITEHEAD: "Bloodline," by Muhal Richard Abrams, in a 1990 version, his modern take on old eight-bar blues and stop-time rhythms. Muhal would modernize early jazz forms and make up new ones. He had a keen ear for orchestration, knew how to keep a clear melody line going even as the instruments kept changing. Studying electronic music gave him a fresh perspective on instrumental timbres, and he came up with striking combinations like fusing percussive vibraphone with restrained winds. And he knew how to set up those gorgeous colors.


WHITEHEAD: "Oldfotalk," by Muhal Richard Abrams. The albums for large and medium-sized bands he made in the 1980s and '90s make his best case as composer in or out of the tradition. The albums "Blu Blu Blu" and "The Hearinga Suite" are good introductions. In Muhal's writing, you can hear traces of Ellington with his own blue color palette, Gil Evans' sprawling chord voicings and Charles Mingus's romantic sweep and controlled chaos. But Muhal had his own voice and ways of developing material. He was great at pulling you along episode by episode as he brought the orchestra to a boil. This is from "Hearinga."


WHITEHEAD: Muhal's great period as composer for jazz ensembles followed his move to New York in the mid-'70s. His orchestras mixed generations and different scenes, blacks and whites, New Yorkers and Chicagoans. Abrams had been cajoling and drilling experimental big bands into shape since the 1960s, and his large ensemble records are admirably crisp. The players were motivated. On their occasional concerts, everybody got to solo, and they always got fun stuff to play.

To be sure, much of that music is less overtly jazzy than what we've been listening to. The legacy of Muhal Richard Abrams will be deep and long-lasting on many levels. But I hope one component is that jazz orchestras and midsize ensembles will play his excellent music. His melodies deserve to ring out.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Muhal Richard Abrams died October 29. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk about Lou Reed with music critic Anthony DeCurtis, author of a new biography of Reed. DeCurtis was also Reed's friend and interviewed many people Reed knew, including two of his former wives. We'll talk about how Reed's transgressive music related to his life. I hope you'll join us.

It's with great sadness and great appreciation that I end today's show with a few words about Kevin Griffin, someone who was dear to us at FRESH AIR and WHYY. He's died after a long illness. Kevin was an engineer at WHYY and worked as a backup engineer on FRESH AIR. He was a great soul and a generous spirit. He loved to make people happy, and his way of doing that was to cook for them. Cooking was his superpower, and he was passionate about preparing meals for other people.

When it came time for our annual FRESH AIR Christmas secret Santa potluck lunch, he was everybody's favorite person. He'd bring steam trays to warm the gourmet dishes he'd already made for us. It was as if he were catering the event. He made so much food. There was usually plenty left over for other grateful eaters at the station. Kevin loved telling us about the special meals he was planning for his extended family.

Among the things we'll miss about him was how upbeat he was, what a positive attitude he always had in the control room and in the hallway even in the early days of his illness when he was still able to work. Our condolences to his family. Thank you, Kevin, for all you did for us and for being you. Rest in peace. I'm Terry Gross.

Kevin loved music - many different kinds, including gospel music. So we'll close with a recording by the Wilmington Chester Mass Choir.


WILMINGTON CHESTER MASS CHOIR: (Singing) I see a light coming down from heaven. Oh, yes, Jesus is the light constantly reminding me not to worry. All is well. All is well with my soul. All is well. All is well with my soul. I see a light...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Coming down...

WILMINGTON CHESTER MASS CHOIR: (Singing) ...Coming down from heaven. Oh, yes...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Jesus is alive.

WILMINGTON CHESTER MASS CHOIR: (Singing) Jesus is alive.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Constantly...

WILMINGTON CHESTER MASS CHOIR: (Singing) Constantly reminding me not to worry. All is well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.