The David Murray Guide

Our greatest tenor man began with Ayler and Gonsalves and kept going

 Born 1955 in California, David Murray is far and away the greatest tenor saxophonist of his generation. He fed on church, funk, and the great sax men of the '60s—Albert Ayler and Paul Gonsalves early on, and soon he had mastered everyone without ever sounding like anyone else. By 1975, avant-jazz had gone underground, and Murray dug deep, recording prolifically for tiny labels—90 as a leader, 90 more as a sideman including 20 with the World Saxophone Quartet, and some count even more. His records are hard to find, little known, and in many cases out of print.


Low Class Conspiracy
[1976, Adelphi]

Murray: 180 albums and who's counting?
photo: Youril Lenquette
Murray: 180 albums and who's counting?

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  • At 21, Murray moved to New York from California and bulled his way into the lofts that had become an avant-grade refuge. His first studio album showcases a trio that cedes a lot of space to bassist Fred Hopkins, including a solo dedicated to Jimmy Garrison. But Murray is already a virtuoso, his trademark the stratospheric runs he punctuates with abrupt honks. Stanley Crouch's liner notes lionize Murray in terms he would soon apply to lesser talents: Murray "swings." I'd say he rocks.


    Sweet Lovely
    [1979, Black Saint]

    Murray finally found a steady outlet in Italy on Giovanni Bonandrini's label. His second album there was this bare-bones trio, with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall setting up obstacle courses for Murray's fierce saxophone runs. The title song didn't make the cut—fittingly, on such a raw-sounding outing.


    Ming
    [1980, Black Saint]

    This octet record was startling when it appeared, recalling Mingus both in its complex layering and its sheer energy, but pushing further as it unleashed some of the most distinctive musicians of the '80s—most notably Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, and Murray himself. Cornetist Butch Morris went on to make a cottage industry out of conducted improvisations—conductions, he called them. This is where he learned his craft.


    Morning Song
    [1983, Black Saint]

    He's recorded the title track many times, but never again so joyously as leading off this ebullient album. Other delights include a meditation on "Body and Soul," a bass clarinet romp through "Jitterbug Waltz," and a brief but intense "Duet" with drummer Ed Blackwell. Neither avant nor diluted—one of his most accessible albums.


    Sketches of Tokyo
    [1985, DIW]

    Billed as by "John Hicks/David Murray," this stands out because Hicks keeps pushing his ideas even when Murray is flying. Piano duo albums became a Murray staple, with his quartet pianists—Dave Burrell as well as Hicks —less daunted than such brave outsiders as Jon Jang and Randy Weston.


    The Hill
    [1986, Black Saint]

    Richard Davis and Joe Chambers are more orthodox than Murray's usual trio-mates—they complement rather than compete, which lets Murray relax and expand. He reveals new subtleties in his tricky title cut, works out a Butch Morris puzzle, takes Ellington Coltrane, and ends at his leisure on Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge." But this isn't standard fare. Davis plays quite a bit of bass fiddle, especially on the bass clarinet feature, and Chambers closes on vibes.


    Deep River
    [1988, DIW]

    Famously prolific, Murray was never more so than during his January 1988 quartet sessions (Burrell, Hopkins, Ralph Peterson Jr.) in New York for Japan's DIW. The label split up the surplus into self-evident album titles: Ballads, Spirituals, Lovers, Tenors. The first released has a bit of each and two Africa-themed originals that head elsewhere. All this music is so consistent it should be wrapped up into a magnificent box set.


    Tea for Two
    [1990, Fresh Sound]

    With George Arvanitas, this is the most conventional of Murray's piano duos: songbook fare, all ballads, ably supported, exquisite.


    Shakill's Warrior
    [1991, DIW]

    Soul-jazz formula takes organ and drums, then adds sax and/or guitar— here both. But Murray doesn't settle for the funk that guitarist Stanley Franks delivers on Andrew Cyrille's piece. That's because Don Pullen's organ goes places only his piano has gone before—compare "At the Cafe Central" with his original.


    Ballads for Bass Clarinet
    [1991 (1993) , DIW]

    Murray adopted the bass clarinet as a second horn in 1979 with the World Saxophone Quartet, used it on Ming, and brought it to the fore in 1981's Clarinet Summit. Since then he's used it for a song or two on most of his albums, and recorded this single showcase. He gets much more out of the instrument than its characteristic hollow tone, including a clean high register he can soar in and honk against.


    Real Deal
    [1991, DIW]

    A duet album with Milford Graves, an innovative drummer with roots in the '60s avant-garde who sets the pace. Murray freewheels, at times so caught up in the rhythm that he just clicks and pops.


    South of the Border
    [1992 (1995) , DIW]

    Murray's previous big-band efforts, starting in 1984 with Live at Sweet Basil, diluted him. But looking south for beat and vibe, conductor Butch Morris weaves the extra horns in seamlessly. Not that they look very far: the table setter is a Sonny Rollins calypso.


    Jazzosaurus Rex
    [1993, Red Baron]

    The four 1992–93 albums recorded for Bob Thiele's Sony-distributed label are the closest Murray ever got to a U.S. major, hence are relatively easy to find as cutouts. Cut the same day as Saxmen, his quickie survey of the pan- theon, this one's good for cosmic relief—especially the Miles Davis reminiscence with Murray noodling behind the rap.

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