Forgotten series: Idris Muhammad – Power of Soul (1974)

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by Nick DeRiso

Was grooving to a 2002 reissue of the titanic groovefest ‘Power of Soul’ tonight, and got to thinking about Idris Muhammad – a funk and jazz drummer of the first order, born in New Orleans as Leo Morris.

He started out, of course, playing in soul bands, and some great ones – with Larry Williams and Jerry Butler. Played on ‘People Get Ready,’ and with a group called the Hawkettes, which featured his neighbor Art Neville on piano.

Was actually playing in the musical Hair, I believe, when he got a gig as a member of the house band in the early 1970s for Prestige, the famous jazz label.

He’s worked with everybody in the soul, bop and groove end of things. Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Grant Green, Lonnie Smith, the hard-bopping Johnny Griffin and Pharaoh Sanders, a former bandmate with John Coltrane. He was also a longtime drummer for bebop pioneer Lou Donaldson. Idris was still working with Sanders on occasion very late in his career.

But, there’s more. He backed Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Randy Brecker, John Scofield and Eric Alexander – and returned to New Orleans as a part-time resident (he lives in Austria) where Muhammad joined former Ellis Marsalis-student Donald Harrison Jr.’s Mardi Gras Indian tribe, Congo Nation.

Predictably, he was remade as a leading light of the 1990s “acid jazz” movement. Many think his best music in this vein can be found on two CTI albums, “House of the Rising Sun” and (of course) “Power of Soul.”

Ah, yes the ‘Power of Soul.’ Indeed. There’s none of the overt self-indulgence of so-called “fusion” records of the day. This thing plays today as well as it did back then. (By the way, Bob James – who would become a leader in the pop-jazz movement that followed – was the arranger.

Muhammad – and this is saying something – is also responsible for “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This,” actually one of the best disco songs ever.

All of it has been fodder for countless rap albums.

Muhammad’s work with Grant (in particular ‘Alive,’ on Blue Note) further cemented his status among the dance- and groove-oriented jazz lovers.

But Muhammad never completely got away from popular music, working with singer Roberta Flack (yes, that’s him on ‘Killing Me Softly’), and even working with the art-rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

In the end, he can be found on countless great records, with Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver, but also with Fats Domino and Sam Cooke.

Underrated, and unjustly forgotten, Muhammad moves like Forrest Gump through my record collection. I’ve selected a few jumping off points …

RECOMMENDED:
Black Rhythm Revolution (Prestige 1971)
Power Of Soul (Kudu 1975)
Boogie To the Top (Fantasy 1977)
Legends of Acid Jazz (Prestige 1996)
The Songs Of Sonny Rollins (Milestone 1997)

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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