Idris Muhammad doesn’t mind the term "crossover." The New Orleans-born drummer, as a member of Lou Donaldson’s group in the mid-Sixties, was on the ground floor of that movement which fuses jazz with pop before anyone had even thought of a label for it. As one of the most in-demand studio musicians in New York, Muhammad has played on sessions with such major Seventies crossover figures as Bob James, Donald Byrd, Grover Washington, and Freddie Hubbard.
And, in the late Seventies, Idris has emerged as a top-selling crossover artist in his own right, with his last several albums placing high on the pop, soul, disco, and jazz charts: Turn This Mutha Out and Boogie to the Top (for CTI’s Kudu label), and his Fantasy debut, You Ain’t No Friend of Mine! (produced by William Fischer).
His brand-new Fantasy release, Foxhuntin’,reunites him with Dave Matthews and Tony Sarafino, the team that produced his Kudu hits. The results? State-of-the-art disco with a rhythmic foundation that’s unmistakably Muhammad.
Idris is understandably enthusiastic about the album. "The dance beat is there, of course," he says, "but it’s also got a fresh new sound that I’m very excited about."
Matthews and Sarafino composed most of the LP’s material; there’s also a track written by Idris’s wife, Sakinah Muhammad. Sidemen include Hiram Bullock on guitar, keyboardist Cliff Carter, Wilbur Bascomb on bass, and singers Ronnie Eagle and Frank Floyd.
Although the jazz public first became aware of Muhammad in 1967 when his funk rhythms propelled alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s hit, "Alligator Boogaloo," he had been the driving force behind countless rock and r&b hits for a decade previously. His beat graced such classics as Larry Williams’s "Bony Moronie," the Impressions’ "Keep On Pushing" and "People Get Ready," and the Dixie Cups’ "Chapel of Love."
The son of traditional jazz banjo player Nathaniel Morris, Idris was the youngest of four drum-playing brothers. "The Dixieland musicians all lived in the neighborhood," he recalls, "so they all used to get together on Sundays and parade through the streets. They had a feeling different from any other musicians in any other place. In New Orleans you have to play all types of music, because it’s just not a one-type-of-music town."
Muhammad is a leading exponent of the unique New Orleans school of drumming and credits among his influences such hometown drummers as brother Nathaniel Morris, Jr., Ed Blackwell, John Boudreaux, and Smokey Johnson. "Because my father was a musician," he explains, "we could play drums in the house all day and no one would say anything. So John and Smokey used to come to my house and rehearse. We were all young cats, but between us, we kinda had the whole New Orleans scene hooked up."
Muhammad was working with the legendary Hawkettes, led by organist Art Neville of Meters fame, when Larry Williams asked them to go on the road with him in 1957. The following year found Muhammad touring with Sam Cooke, but he soon returned home to cut "You Talk Too Much" with singer Joe Jones.
That record and other New Orleans hits of the period were causing a sensation across the nation with their unique syncopated rhythms. Artists and producers in the major recording centers were looking for a way to duplicate the magic sound but it was so different that no one could copy it. Earl Palmer had already gone to Southern California, where he became the leading rock studio drummer of the late Fifties. Berry Gordy sent for Smokey Johnson, who, according to Muhammad, laid the rhythmic foundation for the Motown sound.
After a spell on the road with Maxine Brown, Muhammad became active in both Chicago (with Dee Clark, Jerry Butler, and Curtis Mayfield) and New York (with singer Lloyd Price and producers Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Jeff Barry).
In the late Sixties, he moved to New York and worked with such jazz greats as Donaldson, Nat Adderley, Sonny Stitt, and Gene Ammons. But they wouldn’t let him forget his roots, because, as he says, "I had this rhythm no one else could play."
Besides maintaining his busy recording schedule, Muhammad also found time to spend four years with the original band for Hair and four more with singer Roberta Flack. He also cut two solo albums, Black Rhythm Revolution and Peace and Rhythm, for Prestige in 1971.
Idris’s enormous flexibility and range were again brought to light during his recent gig with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin’s quartet. "That whole tour was the greatest experience! Johnny is such a strong player, and we had a ball playing together."
At the other end of the Muhammad spectrum is Foxhuntin’-dynamic disco, and another expression of his unique rhythmic talents.