Abrams Always Seeking New Frontiers

“I have always been inspired to look for better ways to do basic things within myself and (by) a desire to deal with music itself so style is not something that is a determinant,” declared Muhal Richard Abrams, the acclaimed pianist-composer who opens a six-night engagement at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood tonight.

“Music itself is the determinant (factor) so I may be found in a blues suit or I may be found in a new music suit. I like a lot of things so it’s very difficult for me to settle in one place and not investigate different things.”

Abrams, 58, is widely credited as the catalyst for the 1965 formation of the Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the influential Chicago-based collective with a roster of alumni--saxophonist Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among others--constituting a virtual “Who’s Who” of the last two decades’ experimental jazz musicians.

The Catalina performance is his Los Angeles-area appearance since the 1982 Kool Jazz Festival. He will be performing with a stellar quartet featuring John Purcell (reeds), Fred Hopkins (bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums).


Abrams’ varied music has ranged from solo piano performances to compositions for large ensembles, and pieces with a near-chamber music orientation to straight-ahead homages to Swing Era bandleaders and Chicago bluesmen. He relishes the challenge of working in multiple musical contexts.

“You fit the situation to the situation, so to speak,” said Abrams from his New York home. “If you’re dealing with a trio--three colors--you mix those three colors. You don’t think in terms of other colors being missing; you deal with that which is there.

Abrams, a Chicago native, began his professional music career in 1948. During the ‘50s, he played behind numerous jazz artists in Chicago and recorded one album with his own MJT+3 group.

With his compositions growing more adventurous and no outlets for performing them in Chicago, Abrams formed his Experimental Band in 1961. That unit gradually evolved into the Assn. for Creative Musicians, which was officially formed in May, 1965.

“The collective idea was what we set out to accomplish, in the sense that it would showcase the individuals and allow them a venue for projecting their invention,” Abrams said. “It started as a collection of people who felt a need to build a forum to present things to humanity that would otherwise have probably gone unnoticed.”

Abrams’ first recording as a leader, “Levels and Degrees of Light,” was released on Delmark in 1967. His next album, the 17th of his career, features an 18-piece group and will be released later this year on the Black Saint label. And Abrams continues the personal musical studies that reach back to the earliest jazz piano pioneers.

“How can you ever finish studying Art Tatum and James P. Johnson?” he asked. “I look in every nook and cranny because I can never hope to bring it all out of there so I take what I can take and use it in the best way I can. It’s a continuum that is going on--I’m sure they did the same thing.”