Where to start listening to Muhal Richard Abrams, the 86-year-old jazz pianist and composer whose quintet performs at Wesleyan University Feb. 24?
Start anywhere. "Levels of Degrees and Light," his 1967 debut as a leader (specifically the 23-minute-long track "The Bird Song"), threads spoken-word passages through long spans of pulseless exploration. Or land on "Blu Blu Blu," a sprawling, big band effort from 1991, where electric Chicago blues bump up against expository instrumental passages and careening hard bop.
Nearly any point in Abrams' seven-decade output will reflect the vast musical resources at his disposal — free jazz, experimental classical music, Latin, swing — and he now reserves the right to revisit any one of them. "If it was good yesterday, it's good today," he says.
Abrams, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, brings his quintet (trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, vibraphonist Bryan Carrott, drummer Reggie Nicholson and bassist John Hébert) to Wesleyan's Crowell Concert Hall in Middletown Feb. 24.
The Chicago-born Abrams recently spoke by phone from New York about composing and performing music with his quintet.
Q: When you were coming up, you studied harmony books on your own to become more enlightened about composing. How did that change your musical thinking?
A: Like any other period, when you're learning things, you try them out. Once you try them out, then you have some working knowledge of the particular process. You can educate yourself if you're inclined to approach studying in that manner. At the beginning of anything, you try and work at the particular process as it's stated, to prove to yourself that you understand what you're reading. You gather that information, and then you move on to other areas of interest.
Q: You'd been performing already, of course. How did the book stuff interact with the live stuff?
A: They're two different things, especially in the beginning. It becomes one thing in later years, of course, one type of process. In earlier years, performing was a type of study that came with the experience of playing with other musicians on the street, so to speak. That type of study doesn't necessarily need academia. You learned from others who'd learned from being in the same process you were in, but in an earlier time than when you entered it. ... Street music had its form of academia, but it wasn't academia.
Q: As a composer, you've never been afraid to use whatever instrumental forces were needed to get at what was in your head. Where did that instinct come from?
A: Being a street musician allowed me to develop my improvisatory abilities. When I approached composing as an improviser, it emboldened me to try to experiment, to use my imagination to its fullest extent.
Q: What's a typical day of composing like for you?
A: First comes the imagination. You imagine some scenario. Or you have a real proposal from some entity to write something. Presently, I'm working on a full orchestra piece that will probably be performed in September. That sets me down with pencil in hand. I might be inspired by some imaginative idea that I'm encouraged to try. It comes in many different ways. Composing and performing has become one thing. It happens at a moment's notice, when I'm engaged by someone to perform or compose, or if I get an idea that I want to experiment with.
Q: Do you enjoy when a composing project takes you through several days or weeks of work?
A: It's always a pleasure, whatever the case, because that's what I do. It's educational. I'm seeking something. The whole process is experimenting, to find out what the results might be. Sometimes I have an idea of what the results will be in terms of the whole structure. You have to experience the performance to know what that really is. In composing, when it's going to be performed, you have to hear it before you get the full implications of what it is to you personally.
Q: I'm fascinated with the relationship between music with a pulse, which leads to groove and meter, and music without a pulse.
A: There's only really one pulse. It's just different treatments of the pulse that give you impressions of regularity or non-regularity, in terms of a beat. But it's all there, all the time. It's how one wants to treat the particular space. You might want to call a song a "song," but I want to call it a "space." We're not playing songs. For the most part, we have some written things that we incorporate into the improvisational things. It all becomes one thing. Improvising in this manner, you get different types of moods. There can be many words, so I'm not confining this to saying we're playing "moods," because that would be incorrect. Perhaps the space needs some activity, and then some silence. At other points, it may need activity that gives the impression of regularity, like a beat or something. Other times, it may give the impression of just an open area with ideas being controlled in a changeable space. There are different ways of creating these types of spaces. Certainly, we could play standard-type regularity, if we wanted to. You may be used to hearing a jazz group play a piece that's straight ahead or something. These musicians are capable of playing in any manner that I choose to structure into the quintet.
When we listen to a performance, we use references that are familiar, before we allow the space to suggest approaches that we haven't experienced. We first listen from our experience. That's normal. Some people will say, 'Where's the beat?' It's not that they don't like it, but they want to know that first. Then they say, 'Oh, that's interesting. It's functioning in some other manner.'
Q: Do you choose players, for this quintet and elsewhere, who you feel will fill spaces in such a way that conforms to what you hear in your head?
A: The player, for me, just has to be a good musician who's willing to explore his or her instrument in various manners. It has to be that person's decision as to how they're going to do that. I don't dictate to a person how they should play their instrument. I may express what I want to accomplish with the composition, with the space, but the musicians have a lot of latitude to do what they want with their imaginations. That's what I want. They don't have to prove anything to me. I wouldn't call them if that wasn't a given. They're accomplished musicians, and they have great imaginations. If it comes to something technical, they read and interpret written music well, if that's the mandate. And they improvise to a very high degree. They use their imaginations quite well. They're here because of that. They're not required to be anything but themselves. It works out pretty well.
The group is different in one aspect, anyway: John Hébert is playing the bass. Naturally, the group is the same, but it's different. There's a different personality.
Q: If you substitute one player for another, you end up something completely different. That must be exciting, in a way.
A: It's completely different, because of that one person, in terms of the total approach. It now has an element that wasn't there before, a different imagination.
Q: Does the form of the composition remain the same?
A: The composition doesn't have a form. It has a path. There are many forms being structured and organized as we perform, because of the five imaginations playing with each other, listening to each other. But they're listening to measure the activity in the space itself. They're not listening because they have to be in sync with someone else. They're in sync, but about the space itself. It's the same relationship as when you're playing in a standard jazz situation, only now, it's not measured in 16 measures, or eight measures. It's measured by the space itself. We treat the path in a manner that we can determine when we make a change in the space. The written music is also in the space, but comes in when we elect to bring it in, but each individual has his or her own part. That's the real fact of it.
Q: You've played all kinds of music, but you particularly love this kind of situation.
A: I'm working in this type of space right now. I can work in any type of space. I never discard things. If it was good yesterday, it's good today. I always reserve the option to place myself in any space that I've experienced.
MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS QUINTET performs at Wesleyan University's Crowell Concert Hall in Middletown on Friday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28. wesleyan.edu