Muhal Richards Abrams has always been a key figure for the AACM. One of the Chicago-based group’s co-founders, he was also a mentor and inspiration for many of the city’s younger musicians in the ’60s and beyond. Levels and Degrees of Light, recorded in late 1967, was Abrams’ recorded debut as a leader, but he’d been active in the Chicago music scene for a long time before this, first in the ’50s bop scene and later as the organizer of the Experimental Band, a workshop/rehearsal group that was one major antecedent for the AACM itself.
Abrams was of an earlier generation from most of the musicians who gathered around him and formed the core of the AACM. He had been an active bebop pianist as a young man in the ’50s, gradually drifting away from bop as he tried to develop a new music of his own. It was Abrams’ increasing emphasis on writing and composition that would help set apart the AACM from both the roots of ’60s jazz in bop – which minimized compositional elements to place the emphasis on extended solo improvisations – and from most contemporaneous free jazz.
Through the Experimental Band workshops and the AACM itself, Abrams had connected with many young musicians who learned a great deal from the more experienced musician/composer, even as Abrams used every opportunity to work through his own musical ideas with ad hoc groups of these younger associates. For Levels and Degrees, his debut and the third Delmark AACM album (after Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound and Joseph Jarman’s Song For), Abrams gathered a varied ensemble from the AACM ranks, mostly consisting of the younger musicians he’d nurtured, to record three of his compositions. The core band consisted of Abrams, tenor saxophonist Maurice McIntyre, altoist Anthony Braxton, bassist Charles Clark, and drummer Thurman Barker. Violinist Leroy Jenkins and second bassist Leonard Jones were on the B-side, and Gordon Emanuel played vibraphone on the A-side. Vocals were also a significant aspect of these pieces, with classically trained singer Penelope Taylor on the A-side and poet David Moore introducing the B-side with a lengthy recitation.
The album opens with the 10-minute title track, a quite unconventional introduction with Taylor’s high, wordless, operatic cries signalling within seconds the distance of this music from traditional jazz. Taylor establishes an eerie atmosphere, backed by the tranquil patter of Emanuel’s vibes and waves of cymbal washes from Barker. The singer’s voice swells regularly into piercing upper register tones, holding long shrill notes before receding back to a more controlled moan. After a few minutes, Taylor steps aside and Abrams seamlessly picks up the melody on clarinet, matching the singer’s shifts between minor-key passages and glass-shattering squeals. With each burst of higher playing, the vibes become more agitated as well, and Barker unleashes torrents of clattering cymbals.
The piece is elegantly simple and beautifully conceived, with this alternately mournful and harrowing melody serving as a study in mood. The way the melody is passed between the players, with Taylor’s vocals giving way to Abrams’ clarinet, offers two very different interpretations of the same musical material, which nevertheless cohere to create an overall tone of sadness and subdued menace.
The second track, “My Thoughts Are My Future – Now and Forever,” features more of a full band in comparison to the stripped-down arrangement of the opener, which had just drums and vibes backing the vocals and clarinet. Here, Clark plays intense, propulsive bass and Barker switches from mostly cymbals to a full kit, driving the band through a fast-paced bop-influenced cut. It opens with Taylor, Abrams, and others chanting the track’s title before the piece launches into an exchange of solos.
Abrams sets the tone with a manic piano solo, atonal and jagged, with staggered rhythms hidden within the key-mashing clutter, matched by the intensity of Barker’s drumming. Next up was the young Braxton, appearing for the first time ever on record. He’d just returned from the army and joined the AACM a year earlier in 1966, shortly after the group’s formation. He was soon to become one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic musicians to emerge from the AACM; here he delivers a concise solo that juxtaposes playful little snatches of nursery rhyme melody with flurries of sound and one brief shift into low-register growling and grunting. The playing isn’t as uninhibited as what Braxton would very shortly be doing on his own albums, but this first glimpse already indicates a musician developing a unique language of his own on his instrument.
The rest of the track continues this progression of solos. Barker’s drum solo is perfunctory, but McIntyre delivers a fun tenor showcase that, like Braxton’s feature, explores a great deal of textural territory within a fairly contained space. Still, it’s Clark’s bass solo that proves the highlight of the track. A true solo, with Barker laying out, it’s extraordinarily intense and inventive, all dense and buzzy plucking, the rough feel only occasionally leavened by some more delicate playing. The solo reveals Clark as a major talent, but this would be (along with Joseph Jarman’s first two records) one of only three albums that the bassist would appear on in his lifetime. He died just two years after recording this, in 1969, of a cerebral hemorrhage, obviously one of the great losses of the early AACM.
If the form of this piece isn’t especially bold, it’s a fine showcase for these instrumentalists and an affirmation of Abrams’ connections to the bop lineage. Despite how far Abrams’ music could get from the tradition – or even from jazz altogether – he still had those roots, and that aspect of his background comes to the fore here, letting each player step up and make a statement. The equal standing given to each musician is a sign of Abrams’ generosity towards his younger bandmates, his eagerness to provide opportunities to new talents, shining early spotlights on promising, then mostly undocumented players like Clark, Braxton, and McIntyre.
The album’s B-side is dedicated to the lengthy “The Bird Song,” which opens with a five-minute unaccompanied poetry recitation by David Moore (also known as Amus or Amos Mor), a mostly forgotten poet and original member of the AACM. Moore’s drawling, deliberate delivery spools out chains of resonant images that evoke America’s long history of exploiting its black denizens. The verse is abstract and elusive, dense with references to African and Egyptian mythology, but the bile behind Moore’s careful diction reveals itself in lines like “brothers imprisoned in chicken wire” or “the ruins of a cursed land / star-spangled Piltdown / erected with the derricks / and we hauled the mortar.”
With the conclusion of Moore’s poem, the band begins a slow-burn build-up led by Leroy Jenkins’ harshly scraping violin, the sound of which is echoed by one of the bassists bowing his own instrument (Clark is joined here by Leonard Jones). Gradually, bird-call warbling, cymbals, and shaking, jangling bells add to an increasingly dense texture. Things then abruptly get outright hectic as Braxton delivers a strident, forceful alto solo above a chaotic wash of incredible density: bells and little percussion instruments, Barker’s busy drumming, Abrams’ pounding piano chords.
Soon, McIntyre joins in on tenor and the sheer wall of sound becomes virtually impossible to penetrate, with the individual musicians virtually disappearing within the overall sound. Only Braxton and McIntyre, with their wailing saxes, manage to rise above the fray a bit, though their jagged, rapid lines weave together and over one another. The stormy drama of this climax is as distant as possible from the focused, beautifully simple mood of the album’s opening, thus encompassing the range of music covered by Abrams and the AACM in general.
The density achieved here is also interesting in light of a curiosity in this album’s current presentation. As reported by George Lewis in A Power Stronger Than Itself, his already-classic ode to the AACM, modern CD reissues of this album have substantially changed the recording’s nature. Apparently, the album originally relied heavily on an electronic reverb effect liberally applied to all tracks, tending to blend sounds together and obscure the acoustic instrumentation. The effect was reportedly so extreme that much of Moore’s recitation was unintelligible on the original LP. This was viewed by many critics and listeners as either an aesthetic blunder or an outright flub by the engineers or the record company, so this reverbed version of the album, though apparently fulfilling Abrams’ intentions, is now unavailable. By necessity, it’s the remastered version of the album I’ve been writing about here; I’ve been unable to find a copy with the reverb intact. If Lewis’ account is accurate, the changes have substantially altered the album’s feel, replacing an intentionally murky mix with crystalline clarity and a focus on traditional acoustic instrumentation. Lewis sees this as a betrayal in the name of conventional jazz values, which favor unaugmented virtuosity and reject electronic manipulation, but without hearing the original LP it’s impossible to know for sure just how the current version of the album compares.
In any event, even in its present, possibly compromised form, Levels and Degrees of Light is yet another fascinating document of the early AACM and one of its most important leaders.