Sad, man. Really sad news hearing about the passing of Idris Muhammad; in recent years this guy was my favourite drummer. He was close to top of the list – and he’d been on that list for most of the last 20 years anyway. I first discovered Idris Muhammad by fluke. Total fluke. I picked up a copy of an album from a series called Legends of Acid Jazz it featured some of Idris’ playing from his solo albums – here’s the picture of this cool dude with his beatnik hat and his interesting name and he’s holding a pair of drumsticks. It could have been any name on the spine of that CD – I bought it at a time when I was just trying to learn, to discover. And if you found a CD by a drummer you bought it. Well, I did. That was a big part of how I learned – to play. And to listen. Got it wrong a hell of a lot, obviously. Buying on a whim you’re always going to get some great flukes and some huge duds. Finding this Idris Muhammad record was one of those little life-changers.
Turns out I’d been listening to him for most of my life – across a handful of key compositions. At 16 Idris, born Leo Morris in 2939 (he would convert to Islam in the 1960s) played the drums on Fat Domino’s 1956 hit, Blueberry Hill. That was something! But as I started to find out more about this guy and his unique groove, his ability to flit between styles and to take from New Orleans and R’n’B and jazz and soul and to make something that was his own flavour, the first revelation was hearing Loran’s Dance. I knew this as the intro to Paul’s Boutique by The Beastie Boys; one of the most important albums in my life, one of the reasons I love music. Even on first listens to that album, at the time it was released, I was aware that it was built from pieces of other lives, other albums, other careers. I could spot the obvious – tracks by The Beatles and the soundtracks to Jaws and Psycho. But I had always wanted to know who was driving that slinky, wonderful groove that opened the album. That set the tone. That was the key in the door.
So onward, and then I’m reading this name in the credits to albums by Gene Ammons and Lou Donaldson, Nat Adderley and George Benson – and basically if I find the name Idris Muhammad on a CD I’m buying it.
A few years back I reconnected with the drums – briefly. Decided to get some lessons for a bit, needed to have someone pushing me in the right direction, and it helped, for a bit. And the revelation from those lessons? The version of Poinciana that Idris lays down with Ahmad Jamal.
I knew Ahmad Jamal already, loved a lot of his work but it was in this context – learning to play this, learning to lay back with this deceptive groove, that I found out that Idris Muhammad had been helping to steer the Ahmad Jamal ship for most of the last two decades. Perfect playing. Just wonderful. Hypnotic. And it sounds so easy – until you try it.
That’s true of so much of Idris’ playing. And a final example – my absolute favourite – that’s him playing on the theme from Taxi. Now Taxi is one of my all-time favourite TV shows, I get this instant hit of nostalgia watching the re-runs, remembering experiencing this show for the first time. I didn’t get all of the jokes, didn’t realise quite how great it was but as a kid I was hooked. A big part of what hooked me was that theme song. After rediscovering it via a series of Bob James albums I hunted down a copy of the Touchdown album via TradeMe, this was a big deal, I’d been searching for the LP for a while. I had this thing – any time I did a DJ set, which is only every now and then, I had this gimmick I thought of – it came to me the first time I played any records in public – I’d finish with the theme for Taxi. My little joke. And perfect wind-down music anyway.
This one time I played it I even got a bunch of late-night revellers arrive. They started dancing. And that’s nothing to do with me. That’s all Idris of course. They couldn’t possibly have known the TV show or the connection, the music. They had to be hearing it then and there for the first time. I’m just sure of that. And there they were, grooving away. That lovely happy/sad music. And all because of the heartbeat of one of the very best drummers you could ever hear.
Idris Muhammad died July 29, 2014. He was 74. He was one of the very greatest. His playing changed the way I heard music. More than once. His music changed my life a handful of times. There really aren’t that many musicians you can say that about.