Born: July 2, 1942 Primary Instrument: Piano
When New York was being set ablaze by a hungry group of upstart musicians with names like Brecker, Gadd, Tee and Lee, there was an unassuming yet voracious musician named Michael Abene among them writing voluminous stacks of top shelf charts. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he was the product of a large, warm and passionately musical Italian family. A prodigy as well as an academic wiz, Abene graduated from high school two years early to grace the music world with the expansive range of his artistic gifts. Learning by trial and error while working with the finest musicians known and unsung Michael is primarily self-taught as a pianist and as a composer/arranger. From big band writer to commercial jingle composer, from the Village Vanguard to Carnegie Hall, from Liza Minnelli to B.B. King, from the GRP All-Star Big Band of New York to the WDR Radio Big Band of Cologne, Germany - Michael Abene has been a one-man whirlwind. And his current primary interest is compositions of length for big band and symphony...simultaneously.
Michael Abene (pronounced uh-BAY-NAY) is an intuitive and unusually imaginative composer, arranger, keyboardist and producer whose work has resulted in scores of awards and accolades, including several Grammy nominations for arranging. His music also resulted in Grammy wins for The Duke Ellington Orchestra's Digital Duke, The GRP All-Star Big Band's All Blues and, most recently, Patti Austin's Avant Gershwin. Immensely respected by his peers, Michael has not been as widely recognized outside of this circle if only because his focus has always been on the music - supporting the many talented artists with whom he collaborates with the utmost of musical empathy - instead of publicity and the media spotlight. In his 50 years as a professional musician, he has only recorded one album of his own titled You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby in 1984 (on the Stash label), preferring to work his magic at the service of others.
The list of artists with whom Mr. Abene has worked with is a who's who that stretches across stylistic lines but always with roots in jazz. In the big band world, there's been the late and legendary Maynard Ferguson, the UMO Jazz Orchestra (Helsinki), the BBC Band and the RTV Slovenian Big Band. He has worked with vocalists ranging from Joe Williams, Chris Connor, Grady Tate and Esther Phillips to Take 6, New York Voices, Nnenna Freelon, Ann Hampton Callaway and Jon Lucien. Instrumentalists include James Moody, Dave Grusin, Billy Taylor, Bireli Lagrene, Roy Hargrove and Cal Tjader. He also became a friend and writing partner of the great Gary McFarland, working as an arranger and keyboard player on McFarland’s SKYE Records label.
Today - beyond his never ending freelance work - Mr. Abene is the Musical Director-Principal Arranger/Composer for the WDR Radio Big Band of Cologne, Germany - a position he's held since 2003. “Working with the WDR Big Band has been a collaborative effort with gifted musicians and supportive management,” Michael states. The group has recorded with stellar guest artists ranging from funk master Maceo Parker and saxophone virtuoso Joe Lovano to flamboyant fusion guitarist Hiram Bullock and vibraphone great Gary Burton.
Additionally, Abene is the Associate Music Director of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop and teaches jazz composition at the Manhattan School of Music - an institution in which young Michael studied Jazz Composition with Bill Russo.
Reflecting on his roots, Abene reflects, My father was from New Orleans and a very good guitar player. My grandfather also played fiddles, guitars and accordion. They were both barbers by trade, though my father actually had his own band at one time that played a lot of functions in the Italian community as well as big hotels in Brooklyn and New York City. He would get home at 4 in the morning and have to open the shop at 6, so he eventually just did music with the family. It was because of his record collection that I gravitated toward jazz - all the Basie and Goodman albums as well as the Louis Armstrong/Earl Hines sides. We had a piano in the house and I was very inquisitive about the sounds it could make, as well as all the sounds I heard from the various instruments on the jazz Lps.
The first music Michael composed was for the Farmingdale High School Band in Long Island under the direction of Marshall Brown - a true pioneer of jazz education. Brown had the band playing very advanced arrangements for their age. The students became so popular playing gigs (even at rival schools) that the school got nervous and fired Brown. Jazz was a dirty word in the `50s, Michael laments. But Brown went on to lead George Wein's innovative Newport Youth Band, the inaugural membership of which included a teenaged Michael on piano, Eddie Gomez on bass, Larry Rosen on drums, Eddie Daniels and Ronnie Cuber on sax, plus Jimmy Owens, Alan Rubin and Nat Pavone on trumpets. This group of future superstars got great opportunities to play custom charts from the likes of Quincy Jones and Bill Holman, make records and even performed at the Newport Jazz Festival with Cannonball Adderley. Michael was hooked!
Abene attended the Manhattan School of Music for a year, but jazz courses were nothing like they are now. So he opted instead to jump deeper into professional music - a world he had already made a quite an impression within. Right out of high school, I was playing with people like Clark Terry and the Don Ellis Quartet, and writing for a number of bands and groups in the New York area,” Michael recalls. The great composer/pianist Jaki Byard (then pianist with Maynard Ferguson) would come and sit in with Don Ellis’ band playing alto. He asked if I would be interested in joining Maynard’s band which, at that time, was the hot band for young players and writers such as Slide Hampton and Don Sebesky. After I got the gig with Maynard, I used that excuse to tell my parents I was leaving college. I joined Maynard in 1961 and remained with the band until Maynard moved to England. My first gig with Maynard was a dance in Buffalo. The next gig: Birdland…the original one on Broadway between 52nd and 53rd streets! One of the best albums I did with him was titled Blues Roar. Several charts I wrote for Maynard were recorded and remained in his book until the day he died among them ‘Green Dolphin Street,’ ‘Whisper Not,’ ‘Airegin,’ ‘Cherokee’ and ‘Fox Hunt.’”
Though Michael enjoyed playing, his first loves were arranging and composing, neither of which he could get enough of. He loved hearing the music in his head brought to life by astute players. Besides, he adds, most of the pianos I had to play on gigs back then were awful! Michael left Maynard’s band in 1963 to join drummer Buddy Rich’s sextet which included Mike Maineri on vibes and Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet. Buddy’s group was working the 2am-6am shift in Vegas at the Thunderbird Hotel. When I found out what time we were playing I thought, 'Who the hell is gonna come out to see us at those hours?' But everyone from Sinatra and Sammy to members of Woody Herman’s, Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands would come by our set when they got off of their prime time shows. It was one giant party!
Buddy dissolved the sextet to start a big band that he wanted Michael to join, but Michael opted to return to Maynard’s group. Upon his homecoming to New York City, a new challenge awaited Michael on Madison Avenue - writing jingles for radio and television commercials. In the `60s, that industry was changing and needed a guy who could write younger, hipper music that reflected the sounds of the Beatles and the Stones. This is when guys like Steve Gadd, Will Lee, Lew Soloff and Randy Brecker came on the session scene. We all brought a shot of adrenaline into that world. I worked first for the David Lucas Agency and then for Marc Brown. It was a paid education for me. This is where I first learned how to write for strings. I was working side by side with greats like J.J. Johnson and Tommy Newsom who I learned a lot from. They had me writing day and night, so you couldn't beat the money. There was so much work, we'd all go to Local 802 (the New York Musicians Union) and come out with shopping bags full of residual checks. We made a lot of money...and we blew a lot of money. It was ridiculous!
Health issues forced Michael to slow down in the `70s, but he played local clubs to keep active. He developed quite a reputation for working with cabaret singers. It was during this time that his old friend Mel Lewis (a drummer he'd known since he was a teen) invited him to write for the the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (which became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra). And another old friend, Larry Rosen, asked him to produce some records and write charts for several projects at GRP Records, the company he co-founded with Dave Grusin. Michael’s first project for GRP was Digital Duke which earned a Grammy for Mercer Ellington. More big band CDs followed as the beloved all-star Happy Anniversary, Charlie Brown collection. Michael produced three volumes of GRP Christmas CDs, plus projects by Dave Valentin, Billy Cobham and Eddie Daniels. That recognition led to Michael writing for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band under the direction of Jon Faddis.
Among Mr. Abene's most distinguished compositions are a piece he arranged for the Metropole Jazz Orchestra titled “Odyssey for Brass.” In the year 2000 he arranged “ITF 2000,” a piece for seven trombones for the International Trombone Festival held in Utrecht, The Netherlands for which each trombonist contributed an original composition. Michael composed opening and connecting sections which allowed the piece to be played as a suite. Another was an all-original composition commissioned by the Henry Mancini Institute for bass trombonist Dave Taylor titled Heritage: New/Old and Then Some.
Now leading the WDR Radio Big Band, Abene has a workshop at his fingertips and spends six months out of the year overseas rehearsing, recording and performing with it. When I took the position, he shares, one of the complaints the band had was whenever they played behind a guest, they never got to solo. I don't believe in that! I make sure all the strongest soloists get to play...and I don't mean 8 bars. I came up in that time where Basie and Maynard really let a band open up. That way, everyone relaxes and takes the music wherever they want. Asked what distinguishes his work, Abene isn't certain but says people tell him it's his voicings, tonal colors, the combinations of instruments, rhythmic nuances and unexpected surprises in the chart. I'm not afraid to turn things inside out, he adds. I take chances. If it doesn't work...I just fix it!
As a professor, Abene stresses to his arranging students the importance of satisfying all parties. You have to make the artist look good, the orchestra look good, AND you look good! That's really hard to do, so you've always got to have a Plan B. I'm an instinct writer, not an academic. So I'll do maybe three or four approaches to a section of a song to find the one that works. It becomes a giant jigsaw puzzle. And all my scores are handwritten. When I sit at the piano, it becomes the whole orchestra for me and enables me to hear what's going on in my head. Computers can be good tools for professionals and students alike, but for students they can often be misleading. Computers don't have to breathe. They can play 800 bars without taking a breath. That's impossible for a human to play! Examining this modern musical dilemma further, Oxford University Press has just agreed to publish a new book by Michael Abnene and Richard Sussman that addresses the use of the computer in arranging and composition.
A final yet undeniable advantage Michael has in his life is his lovely wife Gretchen Abene who helps steer him through the madness, his youngest son Justin and his older son Scott who carry on the family name behind the scenes, as well as two daughters, Brenda Braker and Kathy Braun. Gretchen is the business person of the family and we are truly partners, Michael states. She negotiated my deals with both GRP and WDR, and is my right hand - responsible for many of the successes we have been fortunate to achieve.
Looking ahead, Abene is anticipating Patti Austin's follow-up to Avant Gershwin. In 2006 he composed a clarinet piece, “PFP (Piece for Paquito)” for Latin great Paquito D’Rivera and the WDR Radio Big Band which was premiered at the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention (IAJE) held in New York City. The piece was recently expanded to include symphony orchestra and recorded for CD and DVD release. There's a fusion project he just completed for saxophonist Bill Evans featuring bassist Mark Egan and drummer Dave Weckl. And he looks forward to working with young artists such as German trumpet player/composer Matthias Schriefel.
I'm driven by insanity, Michael concludes. I thrive on challenges and psyching out how I will complete a new piece. But once I finish, I forget it and move on. I have to flush my head!