Ahmed Abdul Malik (1927–1993) made a major contribution to jazz and can be thought of as one of the originators of world music. Jazz Sahara, his remarkable debut album, was recorded in 1958, predating Kind of Blue by Miles Davis  and John Coltrane’s first modal recording My Favourite Things . It was also a radical departure from the conventional jazz ensemble of the time: Malik plays double bass and ‘ud [oud] which means wood in Arabic. The ‘ud consists of a large, pear-shaped body and a short neck with no frets, which is played with a plectrum, has five double strings, and a range of over three octaves. It has no standard tuning determined by the diatonic scale as found in western music. Instead of the piano, he uses the kanoon [a near Eastern instrument, like a zither], which is used to create rhythmic counterpoint as a means of encouraging the soloist. Malik is also playing in the Sudanese style and is incorporating rhythms and scales unique to this style: primarily pentatonic scales not found in the standard Arabic maqam system.
Jazz Sahara included the tenor saxophone master Johnny Griffin, a brilliant improviser not fazed by the lack of chord changes. The kanoon was played by Jack Ghanaim, Malik’s musical associate for wedding events and an excellent improviser in his own right. The ensemble also featured Mike Hemway on Darbuka [an Egyptian goblet-shaped drum], the masterful violin playing of Naim Karacand—with the violin tuned in fourths and fifths, the traditional Arab tuning, and using microtonal slurs to create a vocalese sound—and the distinguished Al Harewood on Drums. Bilal Abdur Rahman, who plays tambourine on this recording, would go on to make a significant contribution on the awesome Nights On Saturn recording in 1961. This a formidable ensemble.
Jazz Sahara is, without doubt, one of the most radical records you will hear. The sound is shocking, opening a new way of improvising in jazz. The first piece, “Ya Anas (Oh People),” begins with an atonal improvised statement from Griffin, followed by a unison theme which is shocking in its intensity and beauty—clearly Malik wrote this as a plea to mankind to wake up from their suburban slumber. The free-flowing solo by Karacand on violin sets the tone for the whole LP’s masterful use of dynamics. The theme returns, followed by an even more intense kanoon solo. The microtonal sound is shocking for jazz listeners as there are no chord changes to be heard. Then follows Griffin’s tenor solo. Clearly inspired by the previous activity, he creates a riveting solo with no reference to chord changes: this is freely improvised music. The theme returns, then drums and bass enter for the first time. Griffin now plays a soaring solo, totally at ease with the absence of changes. I remember going back to the cover to check the date when I first heard this—to this day it’s hard to believe it was 1958. The piece ends with a majestic bass solo which is steeped in the blues while looking forward.
“Isma`a (Listen)” finds Griffin in a playful mood with an oblique reference to “Salt Peanuts.” He also plays long notes and broken passages over a strident ensemble riff. His playing is revolutionary. This is followed by a sparkling ‘ud solo by Malik and another majestic violin solo by Karacand. The level of invention in the solos is breath-taking. The kanoon solo evokes an eagle swooping high in the sky.
The third piece, “El Haris (Anxious),” has another amazing solo by Griffin. It is striking that, even though Griffin and Malik are experts in hard bop, both can drop that vocabulary, creating fresh music. Griffin, especially, should be reevaluated as his free-flowing playing is exemplary throughout. The final track is a triumphant anthem called “Farah Alayna (Joy Upon Us),” which features a beautiful violin solo and a spectacular kanoon solo before the theme returns. This album is so important. It clearly offers a new alternative to improvising in a jazz context and paves the way for artists such as Jamaladeen Tacuma and Amir ElSaffar.
East Meets West, recorded in 1959, showed off Malik’s considerable skills as an arranger, adding jazz giants Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Jerome Richardson, and Benny Golson along with Griffin. Ahmed Yetman replaces Jack Ghanaim on kanoon and Jakaarawan Nasseur provides vocals on “Takseem (Solo).” The album starts off with “La Ikby (Don’t Cry).” Compared to Jazz Sahara, this is more conventional, but still amazing, music with great playing by Morgan and Griffin. Most critics wrongly considered Jazz Sahara a novelty record. With East Meets West, I feel Malik may have felt the need to prove his jazz credentials with more emphasis on hard bop conventions and with the kanoon and Darbuka mixed a lot quieter. The standout piece for me is “Searchin,” which is more in the style of Gil Evans.
With Nights On Saturn, Malik’s most radical album, he developed the ideas first used in Jazz Sahara to a new level. This record should be seen as one of the major records of the free jazz movement. This is due to a fantastic line up of musicians involved in the new jazz movement: Bilal Abdur Rahman on clarinet, percussion, and the Korean piri [a double reed instrument], Tommy Turrentine on trumpet, Eric Dixon on tenor saxophone, Calo Scott on cello, and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Malik plays Double Bass and ‘ud.
The opening piece, “Nights On Saturn,” was one of the recordings that changed my life. It would have been around 1981 when Matt Lewis, a great drummer who lived in Oxford—we played in a trio called Ghosts with the saxophonist Pete McPhail—invited me around to hear this record. We were both shocked at the sound this opening piece evoked. I can honestly say that it still shocks me. It can be compared to Magic City by Sun Ra in how it creates an other-worldly sound: Rahman’s playing on the piri, the shifting, polymetric playing of Cyrille, the free-flowing ostinato bass figure by Malik, and the arco cello playing by Scott. There is a majestic trumpet solo by Turrentine, then the spacious interplay between Ahmed and Scott before a solo by Cyrille that ends by reintroducing the pulse pattern. It is truly extraordinary.
Ahmed—a quartet dedicated to Malik’s music—first got together in 2015. I first met bassist Joel Grip and percussionist Antonin Gerbal in 2013, when I was invited to play a solo piano concert as part of Umlaut Festival. I was intrigued by the fact that there was a collective of young players interested in improvised music based in Paris, and we started playing together. We recorded as a trio under the name ISM which means “name” in Arabic. I was impressed by the flexible approach and liked the fact they weren’t afraid to swing in the conventional sense if the music dictated it. Our first album, Nature In Its Inscrutability Strikes Back, was recorded in Paris in 2014.
Later that year, I bumped into saxophonist Seymour Wright, and we talked about playing together. I have known Seymour since he was seventeen. His father, Geoff Wright, was a promoter of jazz and improvised music in Derby and would invite musicians round. Seymour would come to the gigs and, in such an enlightened atmosphere, nobody on the scene was surprised he would become a player. He suggested doing something with Malik’s material, and I started thinking about how I could contribute to it as a pianist. The record that gave me a way in would have been Port Of Call by Cecil Taylor. In that early period, the piano was used more percussively, and I know the calypso-influenced drumming of Dennis Charles was no accident.
We organised a recording session at the Vortex in London, with an excellent young violinist named Billy Steiger as well as a great engineer to record the encounter. We all felt this was something worth pursuing. Joel invited the group to perform at his Hagenfesten festival in a tiny village, Dala Floda, in Sweden in August 2016. We were very happy with the result, and this was our first release, New Jazz Imagination, which came out on Umlaut Records in 2017. We used Malik’s tune, “El Haris,” which means cautious, guarded in Arabic, and titled our versions “Anxious” as we were very keen but also apprehensive.
In that first recording, we found that the composition shouldn’t be discarded completely and that a rhythmic approach worked effectively. This, of course, was all happening in real time. We didn’t get to perform again until 2018, when we were asked to play at Bad Bonn festival in Switzerland and the Empty Gallery in Hong Kong. It was at the Bad Bonn concert that we developed the Ahmed sound—dealing with another reference point in Roscoe Mitchell’s composition “Noonah,” especially the solo concert version, working with a block of sound that constantly repeats while changing its shape ever so slightly.
The Switzerland gig got us ready for Hong Kong. This gig was the epiphanic moment for Ahmed! Seeing people trying to dance to us we undoubtedly found amusing, but it also subconsciously affected our playing. We started to lock up into a groove, and the intensity level was increased. David Grubbs and Taku Unami, who played a great guitar duo the next day, were very complementary about the music. We all felt that we were creating something fresh and in the recording session we made the breakthrough. We recorded “Farah Alayna (Joy Upon Us),” and on the playback realized we had had hit on something, a fresh approach we were able to develop even further when we played Café Oto later in the year. I found I could inject my love of calypso into the music, but that I was also able to use an atonal approach to accompany Seymour’s microtonal approach. As a rhythm section, we had greater freedom to push the groove elements without sounding forced. So, on Night on Saturn (Communication), we now had a formidable toolbox. We could manipulate the music by using different pulse systems to keep the intensity and a suite of melodic devices including pantonality, atonality, and modal approaches.
I think it’s important to say that Ahmed Abdul Malik’s innovations have made our musical universe possible, and the Sudanese influence on African American culture has been tremendous, not only in the arts, but politically too. It was Ahmed Osman, a Sudanese from Nuba who emigrated to the US in 1962, who converted Malcolm X to Islam. He met him in Harlem in July 1963 and helped Malik El Shabazz to do the Hajj, and he became a close friend and advisor to him. This is now set forth in a documentary produced by Hakim Aidi called Malcolm X and the Sudanese directed by Sophie Schrago. I recommend this, and, of course, if you haven’t heard Ahmed Abdul Malik’s music, you need to hear it now.
Hisham Aidi, “Malcolm X and the Sudanese,” Al Jazeera, March, 19, 2020.
Robin D. G. Kelly, Africa Speaks, America Answers, (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Gabriel Levin, “Oud at the Junction of the Nile,” Oud Migrations, June 12, 2017.
Ahmed Abdul Malik Selected Discography
1958 Jazz Sahara Riverside Records
1959 East Meets West RCA VICTOR
1961 The Music of Abdul Malik New jazz
Ahmed Selected Discography
2017 Ahmed New jazz Imagination Umlaut Records
2019 Super Majnoon (East Meets West) OTOROKU
2021 Nights on Saturn (Communication) Astral Spirits