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Ahmed Abdul-Malik

Four Classic Albums

AVID JAZZ AMSC 1248 [73:09 + 68:50]



Jazz Sahara
1. Ya Annas (Oh People)
2. Isma’a (Listen)
3. El Haris (Anxious)
4. Farah’ Alaiyna (Joy Upon Us)

Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass, oud), Johnny Griffin (tenor sax, tracks1-3), Naim Karacand (violin), Al Harewood (drums), Jack Ghanaim (kanoon), Bilal Abdurrahman (tambourine), Mike Hamway (darabeka / goblet drum). Rec. New York City, October 1958.

East Meets West
5. E-Lail (The Night)
6. La Ibky (Don’t Cry)
7. Takseem (Solo)
8. Searchin’
9. Isma’a (Listen)
10. Rooh (The Soul)
11. Mahawara (The Eagle)
12. El Ghada (The Jungle)
Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass, oud), Lee Morgan (trumpet, 5-6, 9), Curtis Fuller (trombone, 7-8, 10-12), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Johnny Griffin (tenor sax, 5-6, 9), Jerome Richardson (flute, 7-8, 10-12), Naim Karacand (violin), Ahmed Yetman (kanoon), Bilal Abdurrahman, Mike Hamway (darabeka / goblet drum), Al Harewood (drums). Rec. New York City, March 1959.

The Music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik
1. Nights On Saturn
2. The Hustlers
3. Oud Blues
4. La Ibkey
5. Don’t Blame Me
6. Hannibal’s Carnivals

Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass, oud), Tommy Turrentine (trumpet), Eric Dixon (tenor sax), Bilal Abdurrahman (clarinet, percussion), Calo Scott (cello), Andrew Cyrille (drums). Rec. Van Gelder Studios, New Jersey, May 23, 1961.
Sounds of Africa
7. Wakida Hena
8. African Bossa Nova
9. Nadusilma
10. Out Of Nowhere
11. Communication
12. Suffering

Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass, oud), Eric Dixon (tenor sax, track 10), Taft Chandler (tenor sax, 7-9, 11-12), Edwin Sheede (alto sax, 7-9, 11-12), Richard Williams (trumpet, 10), Tommy Turrentine (trumpet), Rupert Alleyne (flute, 7-9, 11-12), Bilal Abdurrahman (clarinet, darubeka/goblet deum), Calo Scott (cello), Montego Joe (congas, bongos, 7-9, 11-12), Rudy Collins (drums, 7-9, 11-12), Chief Bey (drums/African drum, 7-9, 11-12). Rec. Van Gelder Studios, May 23, 1961 (track 10); New York, August 22, 1962 (7-9, 11-12).

Ahmed Abdul-Malik was born Jonathan Tim Jr. in Brooklyn in 1927. He always said that his parents were Sudanese. This may have been a fiction he found attractive, a lie he had been told or some kind of error. The truth was that both his parents were immigrants from the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean. The best discussion of Abdul-Malik known to me (and to which I am indebted, especially for biographical information) is a long chapter, ‘Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s Islamic Experimentalism’ in Robin. D.G. Kelley’s book Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, 2012). Kelly tells his reader that “[Abdul-Malik] was always partial to the music of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Turkey, as well as musical traditions of the Indian sub-continent” (p.91). His fascination with this music was as much religious/spiritual as musical – which may be a distinction Abdul-Malik himself would not have made. In the Brooklyn of his youth there were Arab street musicians to be heard, according to Kelley. Abdul-Malik’s first instrument was the violin, his father giving him lessons. He took up the cello, piano, bass and tuba in ensuing years. His first professional work as a musician (playing bass) seems to have been in 1944 with the band of the veteran reed player Fess Williams. At some point in the 1940s he converted to Islam and changed his name. As Kelley puts it he “cultivated a relationship with the Arab music community in New York” (p.102). From 1956 onwards he played (and recorded) with musicians such as Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and, less predictably, with Jutta Hipp and Zoot Sims. In the late 1950s he formed his first ensemble mixing jazz and Arab musicians; the group found little work, both because the music they had to offer was not obviously commercial and because the group was only willing to work in venues which did not serve alcohol. However, in 1958 Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records – probably influenced by Monk and Weston – offered Abdul-Malik a recording session. The result was Jazz Sahara (Riverside RLP 12-287). Four compositions by Abdul-Malik were recorded. At various points the leader plays both bass and oud (the Arab lute). Much of the rhythmic impulse comes from Mike Hamway and Bilal Abdurrahman, as well as Al Harewood. The first two tracks are quite similar – perhaps too much so to hold the interest of the uncommitted listener. On the first, Johnny Griffin’s brief quotations from ‘Night Train’ and ‘Salt Peanuts’ are uncomfortably at odds with the Arab colours and rhythms around him. Abdul-Malik, playing his bass, takes an attractive solo. On the second track he switches to oud. Griffin here tries a little harder to take account of his surroundings. On the third track ‘El Haris’, however, Griffin plays a solo that could have come from almost any jazz recording of the day. Overall, Jazz Sahara is perhaps no more than a pioneering, interesting failure.

Another chance to record came Abdul-Malik’s way in the following year, this time from a much larger record company, RCA. Abdul-Malik expanded his group for this second recording. This time, with the addition of trumpeter Lee Morgan, trombonist Curtis Fuller and tenorist Benny Golson, there is a stronger horn section and with it, a fuller ‘jazz sound’ ( Jazz Sahara too often sounds like the kind of Arab music that might be dubbed on a travelogue). On East and West all the compositions are, once more, by Abdul-Malik. ‘E-Lail’ works quite well, though for all its ‘eastern’ atmosphere, Lee Morgan more or less ignores the framework created by the composer and, in his solo, replaces it by a blues scale. ‘Rooh’ (The Soul) is a more meditative piece, this time more ‘Arab’ than jazz. ‘Searchin’, on the other hand, is more or less straightforward jazz, essentially in the idiom of Hard Bop.

Although there were clearly promising possibilities indicated on both these discs (especially East Meets West), Abdul-Malik found it impossible to sustain a working band made up of both jazzmen and ‘Arab’ musicians, which might have led to the realisation of some of those possibilities. When the chance to make another recording cam along in 1961 (this time for ‘New Jazz’, a Prestige label) the ensemble used was largely made up of jazz musicians. On the resulting recording ( The Music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, NJ 8266) the leader again played both bass and oud (his work on this latter instrument sounding more assured and inventive). It includes only one track with an Arabic title, ‘La Ibkey’ (a tune previously recorded on East Meets West) The most successful tracks here are, to my ears, the fascinating ‘Oud Blues’, full of intriguing semi-tones, and ‘Nights on Saturn’ (had Abdul-Malik been listening to Sun Ra ?) which, in the almost total absence of either harmonic or rhythmic structures is a harbinger of free jazz. Tommy Turrentine, Abdul-Malik and Calo Scott all make good use of the freedom given to them. But the most startling and impressive solo of the album comes from Bilal Abdurrahman playing a clarinet (if you believe Avid’s personnel listing) or a peri (a double-reed instrument from Korea (according to Kelley). It sounds to me as though Kelley is right.

Abdul-Malik’s fourth album Sounds of Africa (NJ 8266), recorded in 1962, is more diverse, musically speaking, than its three predecessors. It draws on the music of sub-Saharan Africa and of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America as much, or more, than that of the Arab world. There is a good deal of emphasis on African and African-influenced percussion – as suggested by the presence of musicians like Montego Joe (congas and bongos) and Chief Bey (African drums) alongside the jazz drummer Rudy Collins. On both ‘Communication’ and ‘Suffering’ the percussion section takes a lot of the limelight. ‘Wakida Hena’ is very much in the idiom of the High Life music of Western Africa, perhaps unsurprisingly given that in the previous year Abdul-Malik had spent eight days in Nigeria, working with a band led by Randy Weston. ‘African Bossa Nova’ also reflects that experience, but is also a reminder that in 1961 Abdul-Malik had also toured with Herbie Mann in Latin America, including a visit to Brazil. The fourth track on the album, ‘Out of Nowhere’ occupies the jazz world entirely and was recorded (with a different band) some fifteen months earlier than everything else on Sounds of Africa. It is, for its day, a fairly straightforward interpretation of a familiar jazz standard. ‘Nadusilma’ on the other hand, features Abdul-Malik playing the oud (pretty impressively). Tommy Turrentine plays a solo which, despite all the ‘Arab’ elements in the composition, he would have played on more or less any of his straight jazz dates of the time. As so often happens on these four albums – for all Abdul-Malik’s good intentions – diverse musical idioms are juxtaposed, sit alongside one another, rather than truly interacting as Abdul-Malik surely hoped they would. As a result most of the music on these four albums is an interesting (and it is interesting) failure, an important forerunner of things that would happen later as jazz communed with other musical traditions from around the world.

Glyn Pursglove

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