Ronald Muldrow - Freedom Serenade
The night that I drove ‘round to Muldrow’s was a still one, his block dark and silent in a peaceful way. The street lights were chokingly camouflaged by tall, densely-leafed trees, a sign that folks around there appreciate their privacy. When I rolled up on the house - Muldrow’s latest wafting from my battered, blue Miata - the vibe blanketed the night and locale like a leather glove... sensuous and snug.
Muldrow greeted me on the porch, his warm smile and Zen master squint illuminated by a soft, flourescent green, sensor bulb, lampless and just right of his front door. “You found it o.k.,” was his greeting. After a brotherly embrace, he ushered me inside where it was clear he’d only just begun the refurbishing of his hard-earned new Los Angeles digs.
When you have the pleasure of meeting Southside Chicagoan Ronald Muldrow, you’ll find he bears a striking resemblance to his music. Like his grooves, he is unaffectedly cool. Like his changes and the classics he references, he’s all generosity and warmth with a vintage wisdom that is all-natural. He speaks in a rambling train of thought that jumps the track at junctures, but always arrives at its destination right on time. So after four hours have whizzed by with conversation covering his history, jazz history, black history and the Bible, you find they really only felt like two.
The subject at hand is the guitarist’s fifth album as a leader, Freedom’s Serenade, “Freedom” being a metaphor for the late, great Eddie Harris. Muldrow joined Harris’ band after a stint with the Staple Singers that took him to Ghana for the historic Soul to Soul concert film. Muldrow travelled the world with “Brother Eddie” off and on until his untimely passing from cancer in 1996. During this time, Harris recorded many of Muldrow’s tunes, including “Is It In,” “Bumpin’,” “Live Again” and, the earliest, “A Little Wes” (from Instant Death on Atlantic).
Essentially, there were three principles at work in the creation of Freedom’s Serenade. And each stemmed from a different mentor. Sitting across from me in a wide-brimmed wicker, a relic he quips, “makes you think of Huey Newton,” Muldrow muses, “Eddie always said, ‘I don’t care how pretty your changes are. You don’t have a tune unless you have a melody.’ Wes Montgomery never did anything that interfered with getting to the feel of a groove. And I take the Thelonious Monk school of recording. Like he said in the film, Straight No Chaser, ‘Everything I play is a take!’” After a chuckle, he adds on a more literal note, “I’ve been very fortunate to have the freedom to do whatever I want to do whenever I’ve made my albums. I try to balance my music for different intellects. So I have some cerebral stuff and the purely emotional, pat-your-foot things.”
Muldrow’s love and respect for
the masters is bountiful. There is no shame in his game when astute
listeners hear a deft cross between “Poinciana” and “On Green Dolphin
Street” in his Ahmad
The bright and driving
“Vitreousity” was composed during the time of the O.J. Simpson trials. It
was inspired by a colorful term used by attorney Johnnie Cochran to
describe the transparency of the prosecution’s motives. “The meaning of
the word has nothing to do with the tune,” Muldrow allows. “It’s more the
sound of the word.” The same goes for ‘UnXochible’ (pronounced like
unsociable), with its head fanning out like diced East Asian delicacies at
Beni Hana, only to subside into straight ahead steak and potatos for the
solos. “I once met a dancer with the Mayan name Xochi,” Muldrow
philosophizes, “verrry graceful. ‘UnXochiable’ is a choppy, minor blues -
Finally, there is “Ysatou”
(pronounced e-sa-to), which gets its exotic title from a Camaroon name
meaning “know it all” and its changes from Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.” It also
captures the sweet
Muldrow, Pertum and drummer Lorca Hart all reside in Los Angeles and have honed a sound working regularly in clubs all over the city. To complete the band, Muldrow snatched up the East Coast connection of pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Yoron Israel from saxophonist Benny Wallace, who brought the celebrated journeymen to town for a week at the Jazz Bakery. Muldrow strategically scheduled his session for that week. “The reason I love them so much,” he enthuses, “is they can get straight to the essence of my tunes. They never play out of context.” Muldrow’s gratitude is evident in the generous space he allows for each of them to stretch.
Freedom Serenade was recorded, after a day of rehearsal, in one five-and-a-half hour session with no more than two takes on any given song. “I can hear everything as it’s being played and tell if it’s cool or not,” he states. “I had no idea that everybody couldn’t do that. The more preparation you do before a session, the more you can concentrate on the actual playing. I strived to make it like all the albums I love - with no ‘throwaways’ and a smooth, seamless flow.”
As a long-time fan, the three constants I hear in Muldrow’s music are warmth, cool and an invitingly nocturnal vibe. His sound is relaxed, instantly engaging and quintessentially indicative of a man who is simultaneously involved in another no less passionate task: the writing and research of a book about his grandfather’s migration across the United States. An established author, Muldrow already has three instructional guitar books under his belt which he wrote for Mel Bay Publications, the latest being Jazz Guitar Notes.
There’s nothing like a man who’s at one with himself to make you feel the same. That is the gift we all gleen from the music of Freedom Serenade. “Ever since I was kid,” Muldrow concludes in reference to his goals and unencumbered methodology, “I’ve never forgotten something Jim Brown said when he was still playing football: I am only in competition with my own potential.”
- A. Scott Galloway