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Ahmed Abdullah: Channeling Spirits

Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah celebrated his 60th birthday playing at Sista’s Place, the café, political center and performance space in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where he has worked for a decade as musical director and a frequent performer. His 12-piece band, Diaspora, included longtime collaborators like violinist Billy Bang and guitarist Masujaa, young powerhouses like tenor saxophonist Salim Washington, and three vocalists: tenor Miles Griffith, poet Louis Reyes Rivera and Abdullah’s wife, singer and poet Monique Ngozi Nri. The group swung the packed room into the small hours, revving up classic Sun Ra compositions like “We Travel the Spaceways,” “21st Century Suite” and “Enlightenment.”

Abdullah, a big-toned trumpeter whose growling, exclamatory solos can suggest both Louis Armstrong and Don Cherry, has been a part of the New York avant-garde for more than 40 years. As a leader he has always had a distinctive sound, a joyful mix of free jazz over driving grooves with hints of African music and the swing era. But for many he will always be associated with Sun Ra, with whom he worked for close to 20 years. A few weeks after his birthday gig, in another Brooklyn café, Abdullah talked about his life, the art form he calls Music of the Spirit, and nighttime visitations from a certain celestial pilgrim.

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