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Muhal Richard Abrams - Vision Towards Essence

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Artist: Muhal Richard Abrams

Album: Vision Towards Essence

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Sep. 28, 2007

When surveying the titles of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’ works, one notices a curious obsession with vision and visuality. From Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1967) to Rejoicing With the Light (Black Saint, 1983), and more recently with Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2007), the legendary AACM musician has worked consistently to express what he calls “the visibility of thought.” We could expand on the notion of improvised music as a kind of thinking materialized, like the musical equivalent of automatic writing. What Abrams seems to suggest with his nomenclature, however, is the way that messages can be transmitted to our intelligence through a variety of channels; few things are in the domain of sight or sound exclusively. The correspondence between Schoenberg and Kandinsky, the animated symphonies of Fischinger and Lye, our fascination with the synaesthetic experience – all of these are exceptions that prove the rule, reinforcing a trans-sensory phenomenon that all aesthetes experience to some degree. On Vision Towards Essence, a rare Abrams solo performance dating from 1998, the pianist shows himself more than ever to be a brilliant tonal colorist, crafting figures for the listener with a vivid palette that effortlessly crosses styles as it does the chambers of the sensorium. It’s no accident that the last few of Abrams’ releases have featured his own abstract painting in lieu of traditional cover art, making obvious the visual component from which his music so often leaps – finding inspiration in sensory ambiguity.

Along with Irène Schweizer’s and Sergey Kuryokhin’s work, Vision Towards Essence is destined to become one of the great classics of solo piano improvisation. Abrams patiently finds his bearings among muscular bass notes and flourishes of classical beauty, creating a dense barrage of notes from which carefully chosen phrases emerge like drops of water out of steam. What a relief, then, when the pianist begins playing something akin to a standard rhythm toward the end of “Part One,” swinging for a brief moment before returning to his favored low-register explorations and polyphonic harmonies. There is a sense of structure, of repetition, but it seems to emanate from only one hand at a time, while the devilish counterpart pushes us forward with relentless momentum over the course of the hour-long improvisation that makes up Vision.

Though the track divisions are arbitrary, “Part Two” finds Abrams emerging from the darkness of the first 20 minutes with frequent runs through the upper range of his instrument in crisp, etude-like patterns. In a heartbeat, though, the music convulses in a flurry of notes that stumble over each other for lack of space. What follows is one of the album’s best moments: Abrams strides a steady beat, off which his soloing hand lets melodies fall in cascades through the air. And when he hits those high notes three, four, five times in a row, the effect is breathtaking. With dazzling virtuosity, he pirouettes in ways not unfamiliar to fans of Fred Van Hove, combining the delicate whimsy of an old music box with harsh, unsettling undercurrents. Abrams refuses to dish his music out in conveniently segmented forms; there are no happy or sad moments, but variously intertwined stories that one can easily get lost in, as if in a playground.

Vision Towards Essence is a telling title; by “Part Three,” it’s apparent that Abrams is gaining increasing focus as the performance rolls along. What’s amazing is how this structure evolves so organically, building fortresses out of the once-chaotic mass of notes. With his bits of classical, ragtime and bebop vying for attention in what is undeniably a piece of free improvisation, Abrams treats the piano as a patient and himself as the midwife, transforming its initial screams and yelps into stunningly beautiful, shimmering phrases. In a final turn of brilliance, the pianist sounds off simultaneously on the highest and lowest tones of his instrument, creating an effect of musical doppelgangers. With apt use of silence, however, each disparate pair of notes is equalized as they resonate, ghost-like, into the ether of the stage. The album’s trajectory tends toward simplification, a paring-down of elements to this core element: the constant oscillation between the dark and luminous that is the essence of Abrams’ art. Thought begins to confront its own negative, a tension that gives birth to the creative act in these levels and degrees of light.

By Seth Watter

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