Muhal Richard Abrams - "Focus, ThruTime...Time (Part 1)" (SoundDance)
It’s difficult to name a more diverse musical vision than that of Muhal Richard Abrams. As a mentor among Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, his approach to composition and improvisation always demonstrates the permeable boundaries of Black music. SoundDance, a two-disc set of concert recordings released to celebrate his 80th birthday, shows once again the depth and breadth of his responses to a broad and constantly changing sonic environment.
The first disc pairs Abrams with the late tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, a long-time friend of Abrams with whom precious few duo documents exist. This may be Anderson’s last concert recording, and it is a powerful one. Their four-part suite, “Focus through Time … Time,” works as a connected whole and in microcosm. It encompasses the arch-like and fluid forms associated with a lot of freely improvised music, and yet there is significant back and forth that breeds worlds of detail. Introspective pauses abound and vie with passages of high energy, creating rhapsodic music that never loses its focus. When I saw Anderson at the 2008 Vision festival, his playing was being compared to late Coltrane, and it seems clear that Anderson’s tightly wound phrases and complete control of the instrument justifies the claims. Abrams has achieved similar mastery, which is why the duo can make an extraordinary statement out of two notes. (Check out the dramatic pause about four and a half minutes into the opening track.)
The second disc finds Abrams engaging the orchestral soundworlds of George Lewis. They conjure timbres akin to their 2007 album, Streaming (which also featured Roscoe Mitchell), but despite being live, this recording is clearer and fuller. Lewis’ laptop language is readily identifiable, his customary loops and long tones leaving plenty of space in which Abrams bobs and weaves with consummate skill and taste. The title of this four-part exploration, “SoundDance,” could not be more appropriate. Again, many moods are evoked, but the changes occur unexpectedly and with more rapidity. Abrams varies volume and color, like what might be heard in the solo part of a piano concerto. It’s a perfect foil to Lewis’ mechanized sounds that hang around the edges of comprehension.
It is tempting to weigh the SoundDance performances down with history, to find summations and statements in them. These are performers of the highest caliber, and in a way, the sounds collected on these two discs are consistent with all of their recent work. There is no audible sign of Anderson’s illness, Lewis is as creative as ever and Abrams’ energy is unflagging. Those facts are cause enough for celebration.