January 2009
Jazz Monthly.com Feature Story Michael Abene

Michael Abene

Welcome to a new year and a new feature at Jazz Monthly.Com. Beginning with January 2009, Jazz Monthly.Com is pleased to introduce a Feature Story section on our main page. We will be featuring professionals in the jazz industry such as: artists, record company executives, leading producers..., who have made major contributions in shaping and re-shaping the music world as we see it today. Who better to begin this feature with than an artist who is well known within the music circle and is highly respected among his peers with over five decades of accomplishments in the music business. Jazz Monthly focuses the January Feature Story on Michael Abene, a gifted composer, arranger, keyboardist, and producer who has earned numerous awards and accolades including several Grammy nominations and wins. His Grammy wins have been 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.


Born and raised in Brooklyn, he was the product of a large, musical Italian family. A musical prodigy as well as an academic wiz, Abene graduated from high school two years early to begin his foray into the music world. Learning by working with the “best of the best." Michael Abene has worked with an extensive list of artists that cover many musical genres but always with roots in jazz. In the big band world, he worked  as a young man with the legendary Maynard Ferguson, also with 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. Instrumental colleagues include James Moody, Dave Grusin, Billy Taylor, Bireli Lagrene, Roy Hargrove and Cal Tjader. He also worked with the great Gary McFarland as an arranger and keyboard player on McFarland’s SKYE Records label.


Michael Abene continues to split his time between Cologne Germany and  New York. He has been the Musical Director-Principal Arranger/Composer for the WDR Radio Big Band in Cologne since 2003. "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." He is also 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 a young Michael studied Jazz Composition with Bill Russo.


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. Abene 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."

Michael Abene has recently completed projects with Gary Burton, New York Voices and with Patti Austin performing the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. He will continue in 2009 working with the WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany on a variety of projects with  artists including: Ludwig Nuss of the WDR Band (featuring  string quartet and oboe), Joe Lovano (original music and classic jazz standards), Francesco Cafiso (a young and very talented alto saxophonist from Sicily performing pieces associated with Charlie Parker), Paquito Di Rivera (on Benny Goodman Revisited bringing music associated with  Benny into a more contemporary setting), and Mike Stern featuring Dave Weckl and Anthony Jackson. While in Germany, he will also be working on a project featuring Handel’s music with a boys and girls choir from Wuppertal

In addition, Michael will be presenting a workshop in Luxembourg and a  summer workshop in Imatra, Finland involving the UMO Big  Band. He is also working  with Bob Belden and other arrangers on a project with Manhattan Transfer of  Chick Corea’s music. In April, Michael will be releasing a new CD and will be promoting the CD on tour in with saxophonist Bill Evans featuring Dave Weckl and Mark Egan.

When he was asked what distinguishes his work, Abene replies that he 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!"

From commercial jingle writer to big band jazz composer, from the Village Vanguard to Carnegie Hall under the direction of Jon Faddis
, from working with 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 is an excellent example of an artist who continues to expand his musical abilities as he shares his extensive range of talents in a multitude of ways.