“I’m definitely old school, man,” confesses David Murray, though it’s not an admission that you expect to hear coming from this particular saxophonist’s lips, especially one who’s been in the vanguard of the avant-garde jazz scene for over forty years. But then again, Murray, even during his most fiercely iconoclastic sonic experiments of the late ’70s, never sought to distance himself from the jazz tradition. Indeed, his tremendously varied discography – where edgy free jazz projects sit comfortably alongside cooking straight ahead sessions as well as outpourings of funk, Latin, and blues – offers ample proof that the saxophonist with the blowtorch technique does not exist in isolation in a category of his own but rather, is firmly part of the cultural and musical heritage that produced heavyweight horn blowers like his forbears Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.
When Murray released his debut album, ‘Flowers For Albert,’ on the small India Navigation label in 1976, few could have predicted, perhaps, that this seemingly unassuming Oakland-born proponent of avant-garde jazz would rapidly rise to become the pre-eminent tenor saxophonist of his generation and go on to win a Grammy award and bag a Guggenheim fellowship as well as be the recipient of other notable accolades (including being named Village Voice’s ‘Musician of the Decade’ in 1980).
One of the things that initially got Murray noticed was the sheer volume of work he was getting through back then – between 1976 and 1979, he released sixteen albums, and in the following decade he racked up a further twenty-six LPs in a frenzied flurry of recording activity for a variety of labels. But it wasn’t a case of quantity triumphing over quality – Murray was a genuinely fecund fount of inspiration and creativity, who could play with anyone and in any format (be it duos, trios, quartets, quintets, octets or even big bands and string orchestras). His versatility and the sheer scope of his musical endeavours, as well as his prodigious technique, which incorporating circular breathing, was breathtaking.
Stylistically, too, Murray resisted pigeonholing. Though he was categorised by some as a radical avant-gardist indebted to 60s icons, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Murray’s music could be often be very accessible. Though free jazz seemed his natural and preferred metier, he was also convincingly fluent in bop – he made some great straight ahead albums for CBS in the early ’90s – and later, as his career blossomed, he explored the music of Africa and Cuba as well as funk and blues. His last studio outing, 2015’s ‘Be My Monster Love’ was arguably Murray’s most mainstream-friendly opus yet, featuring vocal cameos from Macy Gray and Gregory Porter, which helped to take the saxophonist’s music to a new audience.
Though he’s not as prolific as he used to be, Murray is still releasing albums on a regular basis and the latest addition to his canon is ‘Blues For Memo,’ his third for Motema. What’s different this time around is that the saxophonist has teamed up with the wordsmith who is dubbed hip-hop’s poet laureate, Saul Williams, for a unique fusion of jazz improv and the spoken word. It has resulted in a stunning twelve-song album whose high spots are plentiful. There’s an almost palpable synergy created by the juxtaposition of Murray’s probing saxophone with Williams’ trenchant, staccato delivery.
Murray says he first encountered Williams in the flesh at the funeral of his friend legendary African-American poet, Amiri Baraka, in 2014. Williams, who has recorded six albums and published several books of verse, read a poem written in Baraka’s honour called ‘Rottweiler Choir.’ It was a provocative, deeply politicised piece and it resonated deeply with Murray, who was moved. “There were a lot of speakers there but when Saul got up to speak, he looked at the casket and said, ‘Amiri, get up, get out of the coffin.’ It struck me so much and really made so much sense, it was the best thing that I’d seen since Amiri died.”
Impressed by Williams’ poem and indeed, dramatic performance, the saxophonist made overtures to work with the 45-year-old New York slam-poet. “I had my people contact his and then said ‘look man, we’ve got to work together.'” Williams didn’t demur and sent Murray some poems to look at. “I wrote music to those poems. His words are so rhythmic. For me, he’s a new Baraka. He’s the voice of now. I really think he’s a visionary and I want to be connected to somebody like that. That’s why Saul is so powerful right now.”
‘Blues For Memo’ is an album intended as a tribute to Turkish jazz promoter, Mehmet “Memo” Uluğ. “We try to remember him with this album,” says Murray. “He was a bass player and he and his brother, Ahmet, owned the Babylon jazz club and Positive Productions. They’ve done great things in Istanbul.”
The album was also recorded in Istanbul after Murray and his band plus Williams had honed the material on tour in Europe. “We were on the road for three weeks and the last stop was Istanbul,” says Murray, recalling how ‘Blues For Memo’ came together. “We pumped that music every night, playing it for three weeks until we emptied it into the studio, where we did it in three days.”
Murray is keen to praise the contributions of some of the musicians who played on the session with him. Helping to propel the music rhythmically is drum phenom, Nasheet Waits. “Nasheet’s the best,” purrs Murray. “When you hear him, you hear Africa. You hear an American playing African rhythms and doing it very well, bringing the fire. I played with his father (noted drummer Freddie Waits) but it’s not often the son supersedes or is better than the father. Freddie Waits was a great drummer but Nasheet is the best. Better than his father. In jazz, that’s incredible. It’s never like that.”
He also singles out pianist Orrin Evans for praise: “He’s fantastic. Orrin has come along so well. When he was younger, I didn’t see the promise in him. In fact, we joke about it now because I had him in my B band and he got pissed off because I put him in it. But Orrin just came on. He’s one of the top pianists that we have in jazz now.”
Trombonist, Craig Harris, also contributes to the album, and features on Murray’s version of Sun Ra’s ‘Enlightenment.’ “He’s on the album because he played with Sun Ra,” reveals Murray, “and Memet and his brother were big fans of Sun Ra because they went to school in the United States. Their father was well off and sent his two kids to study in North Carolina somewhere and they became Sun Ra groupies. Craig Harris was in the band during that time.”
Murray’s love affair with the saxophone began early on in his life. He was raised in a musical household – “my mother was a church pianist” – and started out on the piano himself but when he was nine he started playing the alto sax. But two years later, he had an epiphany that changed his life and offered a glimpse of his future destiny. “I went to see Sonny Rollins (pictured above) at the Berklee jazz festival,” he says. “I was 11. He had this tenor and it was bigger than the alto and he got way more sound than I got out of my sax. I came back and told my dad and said, dad, ‘I’ve got this alto, but I really want to buy a tenor because I’d seen this guy Sonny Rollins play one.’ So my dad, being the fantastic, great man that he was, took me down to his credit union and he signed me up and we went and bought this Selmer Mark 6 the next day… and I played that horn until my second wife almost broke my neck with it and threw it out the window.”
In terms of other influences that shaped his approach to the saxophone, Murray says: “I listened to everybody but I was most impressed with Paul Gonsalves, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.” Even though he started out making a name for himself playing avant-garde music, Murray’s big, guttural sound endeared him to many of the old school saxophonists like Clifford Jordan, Johnny Griffin, and Dexter Gordon when he was starting out in the mid-’70s. “They all liked me, for some reason,” recalls the saxophonist, who was fortunate enough to start his career when giants from the bebop era were still active. “Even though I was playing some different kind of music, they didn’t give a shit – they liked the sound that I was coming up with. They were all my friends. Guys after me didn’t have a chance to meet these guys but I was thankful that I did.”
Given how incredibly prolific he’s been, David Murray doesn’t seem like someone who takes the time to pause and reflect on his past work but he admits that lately he’s been listening back to some of his old work. “Right now, I’m reviewing stuff that I did back in the seventies and eighties,” he says. And what does he hear? “I hear a young, energetic me playing with some older guys and just going along with what they’re doing and then in the middle of the eighties, I just stepped out. I decided to stop being the young guy and decided to just be the guy: I stopped doing stuff that other people wanted and did what I wanted. There was a moment when I consciously had to step ahead, but then I got criticised for doing a lot of albums for DIW – they made me the face of Japanese jazz for for 12 years – and Black Saint. If I died or got hit by a bus tomorrow, I’d be happy with what I’ve done. But I’m still doing my thing. As long as I’m breathing, I’ll be making albums.”
Indeed, for Murray, making music is as natural as breathing and by listening to his music, you can gauge who he is and what’s done in his life. In short, you take a walk in his shoes. “My life comes through the saxophone, you can hear it in the notes,” he says, and then adds, with a note of caution: “It’s not a joke – it’s for real.” Realness and authenticity are not qualities that Murray lacks. Heartbreak, divorce, disappointment, as well as moments of triumph and jubilation, can all be detected in his eloquent tenor saxophone, whose big, resonant, virile sound – especially on ballads – brings to mind noted old school players like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Dexter Gordon.
Most of Murray’s work has come out via independent labels but there was a time in the late ’80s and early ’90s when he was recording for affiliated imprints of the big major label, Columbia. The first Columbia stint was on the Epic subsidiary, Portrait, where he released ‘Ming’s Mambo,’ in 1988. It was produced by veteran Coltrane producer, Bob Thiele, who later signed Murray to his Columbia-distributed Red Baron imprint. It was a time when Columbia was seemingly awash with money and its executives weren’t afraid to invest heavily in jazz. “When I was working with Bob, we had $100,000 record deals going on,” reveals Murray. “That was a time when you had to be chosen to record.”
Murray has mixed memories of working with Thiele (pictured above), who died in 1996. “Bob’s idea of being a producer was putting me in the studio with people that he wanted and going to get coffee,” he laughs. “But seriously, Bob was great because he knew we wanted and he put the people together. He put me in a lot of strange predicaments, though, to tell you the truth, but he sold albums.”
One session they did together still haunts the saxophonist. “I hired Bob to bring me, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner for an album we did called ‘Special Quartet.’ On that session they were all drunk. Elvin was so drunk when we did that record that I can’t listen to it. It was a tough time. But it’s still Elvin Jones and people liked it and the record sold.”
Though playing the saxophone and making music is his passion, David Murray’s family come first. “Forget music, my children are my best work,” he laughs. “I’m a very proud father. My son Mingus is playing guitar on my new album and I’m also working with him in a band called Class Struggle. My other son, Ruben, works at the United Nations in the summertime as an intern. He’s translating for future African presidents. I’m so proud of him. And then my daughter, Crystal, she’s singing and is also a model. She’s in the Gucci Gang in Paris. She looks like me but she’s really pretty with a big Afro. So that’s my best work there.”
Murray also sings the praises of his third wife and manager, Valerie Malot, who also runs the 3D Family management and booking agency. “I’m very proud of my wife,” he says. “Her project, ‘Les Amazones D’Afrique,’ ended up in the top playlist of Barack Obama. She produced the whole thing. It’s got critical acclaim everywhere. Valerie’s the power in my life right now and we’ve always done great work together but now she’s doing stuff on her own and I’m very proud of what she’s done. Amadou and Maryam is one of her acts, so she’s got a lot of good stuff going on. I’m very proud of all of us. It’s a family business. We’re a corporation – we’re not just David Murray anymore.”
As a man whose discography is colossal, David Murray, as you can imagine, is never short of ideas. He has a few irons in the fire, he says, though one he’d particularly like to see come to fruition is a work inspired by the verses of Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. “I really need to get in the studio and record the ‘Pushkin Suite’ that I did. Hopefully that will be later this year. It’s just too big a project to go unnoticed. I’d also like to get on wax one day the obscure works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn but I need some decent money for it – I can’t do it myself, it’s too big. And I’d really like to make one more octet album but with some younger cats just to keep that octet vibe out there.”
Aside from the music, he says he would like to start work on his autobiography and wants Saul Williams to help him. “I’m trying to convince him but I don’t think he’s got time,” he confides. “He’s got so much on his plate.” Let’s hope he can persuade the poet to ghost his memoirs as it would be guaranteed to be an unputdownable page-turner.
‘BLUES FOR MEMO’ IS RELEASED DIGITALLY VIA MOTEMA ON FEBRUARY 2ND.
THE PHYSICAL RELEASE FOLLOWS ON FEBRUARY 16TH.