Idris Muhammad: New Orleans jazz drummer who played as a teenager on Fats Domino’s hit single 'Blueberry Hill'

 

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The Independent Online

Perhaps no single musician of recent times better captured the vivid variety and natural eclecticism of New Orleans music than drummer Idris Muhammad, who died back in the city of his birth after ill-health curtailed his seemingly unstoppable rate of production.

Muhammad’s list of performing credits covers r’n’b, funk, soul, but also what came to be known as “soul jazz” or later “acid jazz”, but he also dabbled in the avant-garde, notably with the fiery saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. 

Muhammad had a natural gift for syncopation and a time-sense that allowed him to produce rhythms of almost mathematical rigour that could nonetheless slip in and out of metre as the music dictated. Like a great many drummers, he worked very largely under other leaders and the range of his associations is astonishing: with saxophonists Gene Ammons and Lou Donaldson, guitarists Ernest Ranglin and John Scofield, cornetist Nat Adderley, as well as crossover artists as varied as George Benson and Roberta Flack.

Muhammad told his own story in Inside the Music: The Life of Idris Muhammad (2012), co-written with his friend and associate Britt Alexander. It was, he told a British journalist, an attempt to “get all the scraps of memory together before it was all forgotten”.

Recent years had seen him apparently suffering from kidney problems that required dialysis. He had largely withdrawn from active playing, but his most important latter-day association was with the pianist  Ahmad Jamal whose resurgent career  was premised largely on a rejection of “jazz” terminology and a celebration of the continuity of African-American music.

Muhammad was born Leo Morris in New Orleans in 1939. Despite an interest in other instruments, he showed immediate and exceptional promise as a percussionist. “I wasn’t the kind of kid who went round hitting things all the time, but I just took to the drums like they were an extension of me.”

A professional career began when he was still in his teens and  he can be heard as a 16-year-old on Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”, an association he remained wryly proud of.

His first taste of national touring was with Sam Cooke, though he later worked with soul singer Jerry Butler and with Butler’s sometime collaborator Curtis Mayfield.

Until the mid-60s, he worked largely in r’n’b, but responded strongly to new agenda in black culture and found himself working more frequently in jazz and post-bop contexts.

In mid-decade, he converted to Islam and changed his name. After an early marriage failed, he married Dolores (LaLa) Brooks of The Crystals. The couple separated in 1999.

Working as house drummer for the Prestige label meant that Muhammad worked with a huge array of artists in the jazz/r’n’b orbit but he also aspired to record as leader and in 1970 and 1971 made the powerful Black Rhythm Revolution! and the more mystical Peace and Rhythm .

On these records, he attempted to synthesise the various rhythmic styles and traditions – African, martial, Latin, free – that went into the making of jazz and New Orleans music in general. On the latter recording, he explored a style of playing in which the drums, far from holding the ensemble to strict time, moved without restraint through and across the music. It was a discipline he was able to apply to many different musical contexts, and most recently to the highly successful trio  with Jamal.

He enjoyed a particularly close relationship with producers and engineers, having a very clear idea of how the drums should sound in recorded music. Working for Prestige had put him in contact with Rudy van Gelder, who raised jazz recording several technical levels in a single generation, bringing out the strength and subtlety of the “rhythm section”.

In 1974 and 1976, working with luminary producer Creed Taylor, Muhammad made Power of Soul and House of the Rising Sun (for the CTI/Kudu label) a pair of recordings that once again explored the continuum of African-American music; the title track of the earlier record was a Jimi Hendrix composition, that of the second a definitive New Orleans song. (House of the Rising Sun also included a version of The Meters’ “Hey Pock-Away”.)

This was long before New Orleans roots traditions had been re-integrated with modern jazz and before the music’s centre of gravity had shifted back from New York (where Muhammad spent some obligatory mid-career time) to the Mississippi delta.

A later recording,Turn This Mutha Out, lacked the Taylor touch and was slight and light by comparison, but it gave Muhammad an underground hit with  the David Matthews- and Tony Sarafino-written “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This”, which has been regularly sampled ever since, most notably by Jamiroquai.

It was this younger generation of soul- and r’n’b-aware mainstream musicians that kept Muhammad’s name in wider circulation. He, meantime, continued to work in jazz with Jamal, Sanders and others until ill-health curtailed his activities and he returned to New Orleans in 2011. Following his death, Muhammad was buried according to Muslim tradition.  

Idris Muhammad, jazz, r’n’b percussionist, born Leo Morris, New Orleans, Louisiana 13 November 1939 ; married twice (two sons, three daughters); died New Orleans, Louisiana 29 July 2014.

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