All of your favorites, in one place.
The story of the founding of AACM is repeated often enough that it’s codified into legend: pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall and trumpeter Phil Cohran, having come together in Abrams’ Experimental Band, met to lay the groundwork for what would be an independent organization for the production and promotion of creative jazz on Chicago’s South Side. As an organization committed to egalitarianism and self-determination, Abrams’ clear role as the spiritual godfather of the organization never quite seems to fit so tidily into the timeline. But before there was an organization, he was the bandleader and before there were bands, he was their leader. Those of us outside his inner circle might be wise not to mourn his passing Oct. 29th at the age of 87 so much as to marvel at the sphere of influence he held over innovative jazz for more than 50 years. It’s only natural to go back and revisit an artist’s discography once we’re aware that they’ll no longer be actively contributing to it. Italian label CAM Jazz has made that fairly easy to do with its ongoing repackaging of the Black Saint and Soul Note catalogs into affordable, artist-specific boxes. The first of two Abrams boxes came out in 2012, with the erroneous claim of being “complete”. This second set completes the collection and is labeled “Volume 2” (even though volume 1 wasn’t marked as such). Also, perhaps unexpectedly, Volume 2 includes albums where Abrams was a guest on someone else’s session. Added to these missteps is the fact that the CAM releases never actually seem to be remastered (there’s no clear upgrade from the Black Saint digital discs), but now is not a time to quibble. Now is a time to listen. A little less than half of Abrams’ output (depending on how one counts “with” and “special guest” appearances) was issued by Black Saint, so the survey is hardly thorough, but those records are among his most exciting and most innovative. Included in the second volume are duo albums with bassist Malachi Favors, violinist Leroy Jenkins, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and pianist Amina Claudine Myers. The ensemble albums include 1-QCA+19, Colors in Thirtythird, Familytalk and Song for All (a painter as well as a musician, his covers often depicted his visual artistry and his titles often reflected that as well). Also included is trombonist George Lewis’ excellent Shadowgraph, 5 and if Abrams only appears on two of the four tracks, it’s well worth revisiting nevertheless. Plunging into the box, we hear how fantastically jazzy he could be in Sightsong, the duo album with Favors. We hear a theatricality that puts him in the camp of early Art Ensemble of Chicago records on “Balladi”, the second track on 1-QCA+19, with an AACM allstar ensemble (McCall, saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill and bassist Leonard Jones) contributing to layers of off-mic vocals. And we hear in a number of tracks, both solo and group, Abrams’ surprising synthesizer work. Volume 2 wasn’t meant to be a thorough retrospective. But it is as good a place to start as any for a composer and innovator who still holds surprises, no matter how many times you’ve listened.