Muhal Richard Abrams 19/09/30 – 29/10/17

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Though it may have escaped many of the thousands of people who attended last week's Tampere Jazz Happening, an event recently applauded for its programming by the EJN (European Jazz Network), the presence of pianist-composer-educator Muhal Richard Abrams was felt in very perceptible ways. Two musicians who acquitted themselves admirably – bassist Brad Jones, as a member of the New Zion Trio, and pianist Benoit Delbecq, a member of Samuel Blaser's quartet – were both connected to Abrams, who passed away a few days prior to the festival. The former was one of his many sidemen, the latter one of his many students. And it is as a teacher, mentor and source of inspiration to other progressives in the 40-50 age group that Abrams' invaluable impact is felt.

The likes of Jason Moran, Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer have all been vocal about his contribution to their development, as well as to creative music in the wider sense. Abrams is indelibly tied to the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Music (AACM), the Chicago-based institution whence came a plethora of innovative musicians who greatly enriched the history of black music from the 1960s onwards. As a long-serving president of the AACM, Abrams was rightly respected for his leadership and unflagging drive to uphold the dignity and gravitas of African-American culture, but all of his own achievements as a composer, improviser and thinker should not be downplayed. From his classic 1968 debut, Levels And Degrees Of Light, to the fine run of albums cut for Black Saint between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, the highlight of which is arguably View From Within, Abrams proved himself to be restlessly original in his writing and playing, all the while remaining rooted in the traditions of his birthplace, the Windy City.

His experimental approach to performance really placed him in an exciting and unpredictable universe of vibrations, as Max Roach so eloquently put it, that took him beyond the school of avant-garde in which he was mostly pigeonholed. The strong Afro-latin content of much of his music as well as the stark operatic strains of a piece such as 'How Are You?', featuring the angelic voice of Ella Jackson, make it clear that Abrams was a wily sculptor of timbre and texture or, as he contended on the fascinating 2010 duets project with George Lewis and Fred Anderson, an imaginative choreographer of 'SounDance'.

– Kevin Le Gendre