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Remembering one night live with Idris Muhammad

It apparently flew beneath many of our radars that Idris Muhammad died July 29. The New Orleans-based drummer was 74.

While he had spent the past two decades working with jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, Muhammad's drumming covered almost every genre of contemporary music, including rock 'n' roll. He toured or recorded with a who's who of big names — Roberta Flack, Grover Washington, George Benson, Sonny Stitt and John Scofield, to name a few. Muhammad got his first national touring gig with Sam Cooke before moving on to Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and beyond.

Muhammad (born Leo Morris) also drums on the seminal Fats Domino hit “Blueberry Hill.” He recorded a dozen albums as leader and as a sideman collaborated with the aforementioned jazz artists as well Nat Adderley, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green, Freddie Hubbard, Houston Person, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Randy Weston, among others.
I saw Muhammad live in a duo with guitarist Charlie Hunter about a decade ago. Here is an excerpt from my review of the concert, which seems to capture both the concert’s mood and the drummer’s larger approach to life.

There were a number of noteworthy aspects to the Charlie Hunter-Idris Muhammad performance Saturday night at Faye Spanos Concert Hall.
 The first was the music. The guitar-percussion duo's two, 50-minute sets were remarkably innovative and entertaining, full 
of good humor and verve and marked by an original, almost idiosyncratic approach to the music. This was jazz at its best -- rooted in its traditions but not limited by them.
Another item to note is that no one showed up. 

A scant 100 people were scattered across the concert hall's front rows. Local residents, by and large, with a smattering of students.
While such a turnout could hardly be called encouraging, the musicians appeared to take it in stride. Hunter, dressed in khakis and a blue T-shirt, gave the crowd a slight shrug as he took his seat, as if to say, "Well, we're going to jam anyway.”
Muhammad took a more direct approach. A vision in red and black from the toes of his shoes to the peak of his beret, he thanked those in attendance for "helping us to spread some joy here."

"You have to spread the joy and let the people decide," he said.

In this case, the joy came from seeing two very unique talents working together. After all, neither man fits the standard jazz profile.

Start with Hunter. While most people's conception of the jazz guitarist hardly strays from the dapper Wes Montgomery-George Benson-Russell Malone image, the Berkeley native goes his own way, beginning with his guitar.
For a decade now, Hunter has played an eight-string instrument, a hybrid that enables him to play bass with the bottom three strings while turning out guitar solos with the top five. With an array of foot pedals, Hunter often blurs the tone so his guitar sounds like a Hammond B-3 organ.

The New Orleans-based Muhammad, meanwhile, clearly conceives 
drums as a lead instrument. From a standard kit, Muhammad produced percussion capable of expressing a remarkable range of musical concepts, to say nothing of human emotions.

Put the two together, and you have a jazz familiar in its format yet singular in its execution. Most numbers began with either Hunter or Muhammad playing solo, establishing a melody (often blues-based) and then improvising on it. His counterpart would then join in, taking a solo that more often than not led the tune into new areas.
The result was a steady steam of fresh innovation. Muhammad brought that sense home when he closed the first set with " the Red Sea," a number he wrote 35 years ago as a member of the original Broadway cast of "Hair." For the song, Muhammad moved from conventional percussion to a log drum for New Guinea, which came complete with a carving of a shrunken head.

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