David Murray: A jazz innovator leads from the center to the edge

By Giovanni Russonello 
February 27, 2015
David Murray was invited to perform at New York’s Winter Jazzfest this January in an early celebration of his 60th birthday. He did three sets over two nights, each with a different ensemble, all playing the city for the first time. No surprise there — the saxophonist has recorded nearly 100 albums as a leader, with dozens of bands. He lives ahead of expectations.

A 20-year-old Murray took jazz by surprise in 1975, when New York was still reeling from the death of John Coltrane. The penetrating certainty and harmonic sparseness of Coltrane’s late work left people awed. Murray made his mark by reengaging with the older, more lyrical styles of Don Byas and Ben Webster, and he built new room in the avant-garde for blues humor and playful ironies.

“He wasn’t really bothered by what Coltrane did, or what he was trying to do. He didn’t hear it like that,” says Stanley Crouch, a jazz writer and cultural critic who taught Murray at Pomona College and lived with him in New York.

“David also came to recognize what most musicians don’t: That once you understand the idea that gave rise to the notes, you don’t have to play the notes themselves that way,” Crouch adds.

On Winter Jazzfest’s first night, he led a Clarinet Summit at the Minetta Lane Theatre, with four clarinetists plus a bassist and a drummer. The front line set up oblique harmonies, and Murray — who celebrated his 60th birthday Feb. 19 — knifed through them with downward skewers on the bass clarinet, studded with meaty, gutbucket flavor.

After a set break, he switched to tenor saxophone and introduced a brand-new trio, featuring pianist Geri Allen, who made warm and humming vamps, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, whose kit wafted a spiked haze upward through the room. The next day, nearby at Le Poisson Rouge, Murray’s Infinity Quartet blended straight-ahead free jazz and open-mike funk as poet Saul Williams delivered brooding, invective ribbons of verse.

It’s not typical for an innovator to lead from a position near the center, especially in jazz. But across four decades, Murray has always held onto multiple forces at once while finding an expressive balance. He likes to create an illusion of precariousness or overextension while projecting confidence. Sometimes it’s as if he is stridently arguing a point — his horn ejecting thick, charred notes and staccato cries — but not indicating which side of the argument he’s on. It’s payoff and suspense, all at once from a player who has often been unfairly footnoted as the ambassador of a thwarted movement.

Murray splits his time between homes in Portugal and Paris, visiting New York just a few times a year. By the time he first moved to the city from California, musicians could more easily get a gig playing jazz in Europe than at a legitimate club in New York. The venues that remained were loath to book experimental acts.

Young players started turning their Lower Manhattan apartments and studios into pseudo-commercial spaces, giving rise to the much-documented “loft jazz” scene. Murray and Crouch lived in an apartment on the Bowery, above the Tin Palace jazz club, and they hosted poetry readings and salons and concerts. Murray became a lodestar for the underground, earning the Village Voice’s “Musician of the Decade” accolade in 1980 while developing an array of ensembles: duets, quartets, an octet, a big band. The last was a rarity in the avant-garde world.

“It was just a way to expand my idea of compositions,” he says. “That’s essentially what Ellington did — he took songs he wrote and said, ‘Let’s see what everybody else can do with this song.’ I don’t know if people hear it in my music or not, but the history of our music is so deep.”

Murray’s big-band arrangements were only intermittently successful, sometimes too heavily weighted with unbending unison lines. But his arranging was perfectly suited to the World Saxophone Quartet, an all-saxes group featuring three fellow downtown stars: Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill on alto and Hamiet Bluiett on baritone. On such albums as “Steppin’ With the World Saxophone Quartet,” “W.S.Q.” and “The World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington,” he composed marbled harmonies that embraced and gave way like waves. The tunes ranged from shadowy harmonic movement to sputtering free improvisations.

There was an eagerness to bridge artistic and personal and ideological gaps, sometimes all at once. When Crouch, his roommate, declared verbal war on the poet and critic Amiri Baraka, objecting to the Black Arts leader’s insistence that revolutionary politics stay central to the music’s identity, Murray somehow maintained a working friendship with both.

“He’s inspired by words, their meanings, and something that speaks to a unified outlook. He’s a listener,” says poet/singer/musician/actor Saul Williams of Murray. (Guadalupe Ruiz/Guadalupe Ruiz)
Murray performs at the Hague Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in 2011. He moved to Europe in 1996 and splits his time between homes in Portugal and Paris. (Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns)

“I used to give parties in my loft, and that was one of the times [Crouch] and Baraka might have fallen out. I’d have Baraka in one corner, I’d have Albert Murray in the other corner, I’d have Ishmael Reed in the other corner. I’d have all these writers, and I had to keep them separated,” Murray says. “Writers are vicious, man. But my thing was, I was working with all of them. I was a writer’s musician. I always did music to their poetry and they used to like me to take their poems.”

Even on instrumental albums — such as the elegiac “Flowers for Albert” (1976) or the tender “Ballads” (1988) — you can hear Murray’s affection for words. It’s in the way he places notes: boldly, with interrogative inflections and an arc toward ecstatic revelation. Maybe that’s part of what helped him avoid the rabbit hole of babbling perspectives and relativism that so irritated people like Crouch. He was a free musician with an interest in form, syntax and recognition.

“He’s inspired by words, their meanings, and something that speaks to a unified outlook. He’s a listener,” says Saul Williams, the poet/singer/musician/actor whom Murray contacted last year after hearing him read a poem at Baraka’s funeral. “ He’s been around those people, like Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed, and it bleeds through.”

Since Murray moved to Europe in 1996, his boundary-crossing politics have engaged especially with global black identity. In the 1990s and 2000s, he recorded a series of albums in Senegal — joyful, mutinous funk with sabar drummers and other local musicians and poets. A few years later, he began to record with musicians in Cuba. In the process, he has developed relationships with young artists and helped some travel to the United States and Europe.

His output has been slow of late, and the typically prolific Murray hasn’t recorded an album since 2012. But he still has his characteristic certainty, and his sights are set in multiple directions.

“American black people, we’re from all different tribes, but we’ve become a tribe, too. My idea is to share those experiences with all of our brothers that are in Africa,” he says of his continuing work in West Africa. “I always thought that traveling and playing music, I’m teaching at the same time. In the big-band situation with Ellington, he used to always have older cats in the same band as the young ones. The philosophy was each one teach one.”