Has it really been 30 years since I first heard David Murray? Flowers for Albert and Low Class Conspiracy are both from ’76, and I can say for sure that neither was out (nor was Murray on anything as a sideman) by the gig in question, in the basement of an Episcopal church on the periphery of the University of Pennsylvania. Murray sold out the house on New York word of mouth amplified by Bob Palmer in the Times and Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch in the Voice. Like Wynton Marsalis five years later (but minus the parallel career in classical music, the major-label muscle, and the Brooks Brothers), Murray was buzzworthy for his precocity. By ’75, the lofts were already in full swing, thanks to veterans like Sam Rivers and Rashied Ali and transplants from the Midwest and California whose reputations had preceded them east. But here was someone barely out of his teens—a blazing tenor whose arrival suggested the avant-garde was still enlisting new recruits and whose eagerness to talk up Ellington’s Paul Gonsalves even while being greeted as the second coming of Albert Ayler promised a reconciliation with tradition at long last.
That was a long time ago, but it seems like only yesterday because jazz has been in a holding pattern ever since, and no consensus has ever been reached on Murray or the late-’70s ferment that spawned him. Marsalis, whose conservatism resonated with ’80s jazz fans who’d felt stranded in 1965, earlier this month commemorated the 25th anniversary of his debut as a Jazz Messenger by soloing with strings at Rose Hall. Murray is now pretty much taken for granted even by the minority who consider him the most important tenor saxophonist from the generation after Rollins and Coltrane, so despite a massive recorded output whose quality and variety rival anyone’s over the same span, his 30th passed without notice. Strictly by coincidence, strings figure in his new Waltz Again, an album that transcends its bourgeois genre as smartly as 1991’s Shakill’s Warrior did plebeian organ-and-tenor.
String orchestras are an anathema to hardcore jazz fans; even the Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown recordings they’re willing to exempt owe a debt to the 1950s vogue for “semi-classical.” In the 1960s, noble efforts by the likes of John Lewis and Gunther Schuller to use strings as more than a cushion were too often sabotaged by the inability of the section players to phrase idiomatically. This began to change in the ’70s, with the arrival of classically trained violinists and cellists who were themselves skilled improvisers; I still have fond memories of hearing Murray with strings conducted by Butch Morris at Sweet Basil in the early ’80s.
Waltz Again, featuring Murray’s own compositions and arrangements, with Roman Filiu O’Reilly (a saxophonist with Murray’s big band) conducting a 10-piece Cuban orchestra, is more conventional than those impromptu sound sculptures with Morris, but almost as electrifying. Murray favors concerto grosso: On the seven-part “Pushkin Suite,” the strings have as many discrete passages as Murray’s quartet. These juxtapositions are tense and lovely, but it’s when Murray, his rhythm section, and the strings rub against one another—on the uptempo portions of the suite and the surging “Dark Secrets”—that sparks fly.
Thirty years ago, Murray’s glancing humor and frequent descents to his horn’s lower register signaled an end to Coltrane’s posthumous stronghold on young tenors and the re-emergence of Sonny Rollins as a dominant influence. Though he undoubtedly picked up a thing or two from Ayler and Gonsalves, Murray was a Rollins man from the start, and practically all of his solos on Waltz Again offer a reminder that on bass clarinet as well as tenor, he’s worked out a variation of Rollins’s pecking technique that’s become his own personal signature—the way he chops and dices a phrase while taking it up and down the scale and extending it over several bar lines. Maybe because he rarely plays standards and his slower tunes are so jaunty and angled, Murray has never received proper recognition as a great balladeer; “Steps” and the title tune (the CD’s only actual waltz, though drummer Hamid Drake elsewhere pits three against four, à la Elvin Jones) are sterling additions to a romantic songbook that goes back at least as far as “Lovers,” from 1984. And I swear hearing his tenor spiral from the thicket of strings on an especially lyrical section of “Pushkin Suite” put me in mind of Stan Getz on Focus (1962), still the genre’s summit.
Given that before he emigrated to Paris, Murray’s groups were incubators for young talent in the way that Miles Davis’s and Art
Blakey’s once were—and Marsalis’s, Don Byron’s, and John Zorn’s are now—it’s surprising that pianist Lafayette Gilchrist doesn’t make more of an impression on Waltz Again. Though he comes across as impressively fleet and hard-hitting with Murray, there’s little hint of the wild eclecticism Gilchrist reveals on Towards the Shining Path, his second release under his own name.
In his early thirties and from Baltimore, Gilchrist talks about his love of hip-hop and go-go in interviews, and I think I hear these influences in his solos and septet writing—both of which stress the downbeat in a way more common to black pop since James Brown than to jazz. There might even be an element of crunk in his crashingly rhythmic use of tone clusters. But his music is jazz through and through, and the angularity and elegiac slant of pieces like “Thorn Bush,” “Bubbles on Mars,” and “Unsolved, Unresolved” suggest nothing so much as Andrew Hill circa Point of Departure. Oh, and did I mention the rumbas and habaneras that creep into his accompaniments? It’s all flavorable, even if Gilchrist hasn’t blended it all together yet and his sidemen (members of a Baltimore group called the New Volcanoes) aren’t quite up to his level. Slide over, Jason Moran—you’ve got competition.