If you are reading this, chances are that you are already acquainted with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’ music. And if that’s the case, you are already aware of just how uncompromising his craft is, be it composed or improvisational. Abrams has spent a lifetime pillaging both, and believe it or not, at the ripe old age of 80, he’s still in the mood to playfully topple over our ideas of formal music. You don’t become the first president of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) by sitting pretty. “Sunset years, my ass”, I like to picture him saying.
Given his history, it’s not a shock to realize that his latest album, SoundDance, is full of uncompromising sounds that orbit around nothing familiar. What may be surprising is that this double package of duets is the first and last time Abrams recorded with Chicago’s saxophone godfather Fred Anderson. Anderson and Abrams had been in and out of the same rooms for over 50 years, but nothing they did together was ever committed to tape until now. The first disc, titled Focus, ThruTime…Time—>, just may be the last recording Anderson ever did. The second disc, SoundDance, is a duet with trombonist MacArthur Fellow and AACM author/chronicler George Lewis. The two sides have a few things in common—an uninterrupted flow, untitled tracks indexed in blocks of four purely for convenience and completely improvised. But it doesn’t take a free jazz scholar reading Lewis’ book on the AACM to acknowledge how different they are.
If there was such a thing as a “comfort zone” for Muhal Richard Abrams and Fred Anderson, it would be the basis for the first CD. But that term must be considered loosely because what feels comfortable to these two old dudes probably feels like a bad fever dream to more linear-minded musicians. After so much work together over the years, the challenging nature of Abrams and Anderson’s music has gradually become their default style. Focus, ThruTime…Time—> delivers on this promise. It begins very crazy spaghetti with Abrams pecking out his scales like a classical Cecil Taylor and Fred Anderson flipping, flopping and flying his way through every note manageable on the saxophone, stopping just short of Vandermark/Zorn wails. The 38-minute journey travels through many bumps like these at the start, and it may be a turnoff for those unaccustomed to the outer reaches of free jazz. But towards the end, both men take their 50 shared years of musicianship and merge it into a fine coda full of time-stopping passages. It’s a bit of a culminating experience, albeit a challenging one.
So if the first half is the comparative comfort zone, then the second half with George Lewis is a deliberate attempt to step outside of it. And this attempt is rewarding, not just because the odd elements hang together but also because it holds up as a straight-up listening experience. Along with his trombone, Lewis brings his laptop to add noise effects to the 45-minute SoundDance. This is where the tide turns, or where the patrons of traditional jazz come to get drowned. The first 10 minutes possibly owe more to Radiohead or Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack work than to any of the boundary-shoving ideas Abrams recorded decades ago with Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton. Between the piano and the laptop, it’s hard to tell who is making the bed and who is taking the lead since both instruments are caught in this whacky paradox of not driving an essential idea while being the only things on the road. Lewis announces a brief interlude with his horn before leaping back onto the electronics. What happens next—well, imagine losing at Space Invaders in a bar somewhere with Art Tatum in the corner laughing at you. Long after Abrams runs his piano figures into the silence, Lewis’ digital squiggles take on a more ominous presence, rocking the balance between dark gloom and white hot discovery. Dissecting the creativity on show here is nearly impossible. Looking at a map is no way to experience a city. Likewise, reading about the music Abrams and Lewis conjure up together is nothing compared to the bizarre feelings the listening experience can bring you.
SoundDance is a daunting and uneven package with no intention to entertain or pacify. But at this point, Muhal Richard Abrams has nothing to prove. Yet every time he sits down at the piano with the tape rolling, it’s as if he can’t help but reinvent the wheel again and again. Forty-three years after his first album, this appears to be where he belongs; on the battlefield, destroying music.