Sunday, January 17, 2010

One of Monk's More Interesting Sidemen

I have been making it a point to supplement my current reading of Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by listening more assiduously to the Monk CDs in my collection and, as part of that listening, paying more attention to those who made music with him. There are, of course, an abundance a familiar names; but the advantage of Kelley's book is that it offers useful sidebars on many of the less familiar ones that deserve more attention. One of those names that I realized I should know better is that of Ahmed Abdul-Malik. The opening summary of his Wikipedia entry is brief but informative:

Ahmed Abdul-Malik (January 30, 1927 in Brooklyn – October 2, 1993 in Long Branch, New Jersey) was a jazz double bassist and oud player of Sudanese descent.

In the mid-1970s, Malik was a substitute instructor in Brooklyn, New York, Junior High School 281, teaching strings under the supervision of Andrew Liotta, acclaimed composer of seven operas, choral, and numerous chamber works. While seeking a teaching cerification, in addition to study under Liotta in orchestration and composition, he also taught Sudanese in the junior high school language department.

He is noted for integrating Middle Eastern and North African music styles in his jazz music. He was the bassist for Art Blakey, Randy Weston, and Thelonious Monk among others. As an oud player he did a tour of South America for the United States Department of State and performed at an African jazz festival in Morocco.

Abdul-Malik came to Monk's attention through his having performed with Randy Weston, one of Monk's prize pupils when teaching was Monk's only source of income. What interested me most in the context of Kelley's account was that, like Monk, Abdul-Malik appreciated the need for playing by ear to take precedence over playing from the notes. This was particularly important when he and Weston spent a lot of time listening to North African musicians playing on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and then trying to play what they had experienced.

From this point of view, Weston was at a disadvantage. The piano was his instrument; and, like many pianists, he was a victim of the psychological phenomenon known as "categorical perception." This meant that he had a natural bias to hear all notes and intervals in terms of how they would sound on a piano keyboard. As a string player, on the other hand, Abdul-Malik could be more receptive to intonation systems that departed from the equal temperament of Weston's instrument; and he could hear that music on Atlantic Avenue in terms of a different tuning system. Thus, when it came to Weston and Abdul-Malik trying to reproduce the North African sound with their own resources, Abdul-Malik was in a better position to take the lead. Kelley offers an account of some of his advice:

He would instruct Weston to play scales rather than chords and to lay out during his solo so that he could explore pitches on his bass that fall outside the Western tempered scale.

Unfortunately, of the five Abdul-Malik CDs listed on, two are marked as "discontinued by the manufacturer;" but two of the remaining three clearly reflect his efforts to capture that North African sound. Once again, I find that pursuing one collection of listening resources has led me in the direction of new resources to be investigated!

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