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No career in jazz during the past 30 years has proven more consistently unpredictable and rewarding than that of David Murray. When he first showed up in New York—a 20-year-old student on furlough from Pomona College, playing “Flowers for Albert” in Stanley Crouch’s Bowery loft—he had two big things going for him. First, he didn’t sound like anyone, certainly not Albert Ayler, though one could imagine that Ayler’s example encouraged his propensity for the split-tones and squeals of the so-called hidden register. The classic Texas tenor Buddy Tate, who also favored upper-register cries, once advised young musicians to find their own sound, which isn’t only easier said than done but almost impossible to do. The sound is you and not something out there awaiting discovery.
But Tate came up in the ’20s, when every saxophonist—every musician—of note had a distinctive sound. That Hawkins, Webster, and Young existed in the same world indicated the tenor saxophone’s extraordinary range; if those three and others (like Herschel Evans, Bud Freeman, and Chu Berry) represented unmistakably distinctive attacks, the spaces between them offered all kinds of possibilities. Tate, for example, started out blending Evans and Hawkins before finding his own place. The ’70s offered a parallel challenge: The post-war tenor hierarchy had handed down alternatives no less distinct in the work of Gordon, Getz, Rollins, and Coltrane. Yet for a while it looked as if the tenor would be buried in a welter of Coltrane imitators. Murray, however, proved to be merely the youngest in an influx of musicians who demonstrated that many “sounds” were yet to be had—especially, for some reason, on alto sax (no one could confuse Anthony Braxton, Arthur Blythe, Julius Hemphill, and Oliver Lake), but that’s another story.
Murray paired Ayler and the habitually underrated Paul Gonsalves. Nobody raises an eyebrow at that now, but in 1975, the notion of a young saxophonist choosing Gonsalves as his North Star was a chin-scratching wonder. In short, Murray’s inclination to play free and even ecstatic was tempered by a desire to play pretty; he produced a smooth yet aspirate lyricism that practically trembled with shy aggression. A second attribute also set Murray apart, although over time it was largely abandoned: an exceedingly legato approach to time, the obverse of the usual free-jazz assault, that tended to underscore the shyness. He held the tenor with a veteran’s authority, physically floating it on the beat, yet placed his tones just behind it, playing catch-up and consequently drawing the listener into the drama. Now he commands attention with the richness of his sound and his ability to hit the beat whenever he wants.
Murray had a third thing going for him, though no one knew it until 1976, by which time he dropped out of school and made New York his stamping ground: a fierce ambition to play everything, be everything, do everything. In no time, he was leading a quartet, an octet, a big band, co-leading the World Saxophone Quartet and Clarinet Summit, collaborating with Butch Morris, working with musicians from every generation, grooming some of the hottest rhythm sections of the era, crossing over into other idioms, and all the while composing, arranging, transcribing (not least, all 26 choruses of Gonsalves’s fabled Newport solo). During the next 15 or so years, he made so many records as to become a punchline; no one could keep up—indeed, some of his best work was hardly heard here at all (e.g., South of the Border). Yet in 1997, after incredibly productive stays with Black Saint and DIW (while also getting in licks on other labels), Murray hooked up with Montreal’s Justin Time, and began releasing one disc per year; in effect, the old Murray—which is to say the young Murray—faded away and was replaced by a musician who recorded less, but with a pronounced involvement in a larger domain of music.
Even so, one of his liveliest ventures never got recorded: “The Obscure Works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,” a big-band venture arranged in part by James Newton which started in Paris, where Murray relocated several years ago, occasioned a sumptuous concert at Aaron Davis Hall—it was perhaps the most memorable of all the centennial Ellington projects. For a while, it looked like another large-scale undertaking, his Latin Big Band, might also disappear without proper documentation. Murray first went to Cuba with three long-standing partners (Craig Harris, Hugh Ragin, and Hamiet Bluiett) to organize and record a 30-piece orchestra in 2001. An advance of the CD, Now Is Another Time, went out that year, but wasn’t released: Yonn-Dee, a Guadeloupean album with the Gwo-Ka Masters, came out instead. Meanwhile, Murray returned to Cuba, formed a smaller version of the Latin Big Band (without the Americans), and recorded two new originals, replacing two earlier works, completing the CD to his satisfaction.
It was worth the wait. Murray’s Justin Time series persistently (pick one) tests the patience or enlarges the horizons of his fans. When he commits to an idiom, he embraces it fully. So while his graying followers could only be pleased with Like a Kiss That Never Ends, one of his most appealing quartet sessions, and Octet Plays Trane, a giddily original take on pieces usually played with palpitating reverence, the explorations into other worlds required a shared interest in his passing obsessions, some of which weren’t so passing: Speaking in Tongues was not his first and won’t be his last look at gospel, to which he has strong personal ties, but it’s the most wide-ranging and deeply engaged; and his fascination with Guadeloupean rhythms and voices has produced two albums, the multifarious multicultural jazzmen-in-a-newfound-land Creole and the voice-heavy Yonn-De. Fo Deuk Revue, which signaled his impatience with standard jazz formulae as well as his Justin Time contract, reflected the world of transplanted Africans he found in Paris, and combined Senegalese rhythms, hip-hop beats and recitations, poetry, and jazz.
What one misses in some of these collaborations is Murray himself. He hits a couple of pro forma grand slams in Yonn-De, notably “On Jou Maten” and “Moman Coluombo,” yet even when he is fully launched, as on “La Pli La,” the rhythms are often less stimulating than restraining, less empathic than jazz rhythms supple enough to follow his lead and oscillate accordingly. Now Is Another Time is a lesson in rhythm, and not necessarily Cuban rhythm; much of its interest stems from the sly, often imperceptible swinging between jazz and Latin beats. In Geraldo Piloto, Murray has found a drummer happy, even eager, to shadow him, so that the timbales and congas may signal one culture while soloists, drummer, and arrangements aim for another. Murray may have gone to Cuba to play Cuban, but the Cubans he found wanted to play modern jazz, and the most exciting moments on the album derive from the mutual understanding that exoticism really isn’t the point—it isn’t even on the menu.
Which isn’t to say that it’s easy. At his January opening night at the Knitting Factory, Murray’s clanging rhythms and bumbling winds shared few ports of call during the opening “Blue Muse,” while the soloists strained to be heard. The band began to cohere on “Crystal,” with its baritone sax voice-leading, a bewitching rhythmic figure that doubles the third beat in every eight, and bold brassy finish reminiscent of the kind of things Johnny Richards used to write. But it was during the aptly titled “Break Out” that the band really came to life, the fast, sinuous theme pulling the rhythm into its own freebopping orbit, the riffs provoking the soloists, and the rhythms building to a contagious dance beat that begged for a ballroom. After that, “A Sad Kind of Love,” a long string of improvisations with broad orchestral backdrops, and “Aerol’s Changes,” a characteristic Murray melody framed in mambo elation and finishing with Abraham Burton’s tenor caroming into staccato orchestral chords, seemed almost as convincing as the album.
Murray wrote and arranged all seven pieces (foolishly, the label did not update liner notes that say otherwise and were written for the disc’s original version); they are mostly long, eventful, and given to change-ups. No one will complain of a paucity of Murray, who is the key soloist and in righteous form. His almost Websterish entrance on “Crystal” is as comforting as a quilt, and though his eventual rising into the stratosphere—the equivalent of trumpet high notes, each one articulated with clarity—has the flavor of inevitability (on “Mambo Domenica,” you may wish he had curbed it), he mostly earns his way. His middle register has never sounded more warmly capacious, and some of his low notes, as on the marathon solo that dominates the first half of “A Sad Kind of Love,” distend into fat two-note chords. His equally distinctive bass clarinet is heard on “Blue Muse,” which is also notable for an especially attractive written interlude.
The best pieces are architectural. “Crystal” and “A Sad Kind of Love,” open with piano prologues, the former adding a transitional baritone sax theme—baritones are rising: Dave Holland’s big band does something similar on “Triple Dance”—and subsequently generating a blitz of free polyphony en route to the final crescendo. The more traditional pieces, “Mambo Domenica” and “Giovanni’s Mission,” are sequenced in the CD’s middle, providing a respite of modulated lyricism. The latter has an exceptional trio of solos by Hugh Ragin, who in his mellow yet idiosyncratic approach to melody recalls Booker Little; altoist Roman Feliu O’Reilly, who, by contrast, is roundly boppish; and Murray, working in middle range and splitting the difference. How much Now Is Another Time ultimately adds to the endless stream of Latin jazz and jazz Latin albums is anyone’s guess, but its raging individuality—flamboyant writing and candied excesses—cannot be denied. After more than 25 years, David Murray shows no signs of settling down.