David Murray

Tenor saxophonist David Murray was born in Oakland, California in 1955. He grew up in the Pentecostal church, playing gospel. He started out on alto before switching to the tenor, and shifted from R&B to jazz at Pomona College, where he studied with Arthur Blythe and connected with poet, jazz critic and wannabe drummer Stanley Crouch. When Crouch left California for New York, Murray followed, and the two played together in the loft scene. 

Murray was an almost instant sensation. Though he understood the language of free jazz, and could blow as forcefully as anyone around, he was not part of the post-John Coltrane lineage. Instead, he took inspiration from the church (which manifested in an almost Albert Ayler-esque intensity) and from swing-era players like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, which gave his ballads a roundness and heft. He made important connections quickly, working with Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie on Live At The Lower Manhattan Ocean Club and forming the World Saxophone Quartet with Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett. He also joined forces with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson in the Music Revelation Ensemble.

Murray has been astonishingly prolific; he’s made literally hundreds of albums for a vast number of labels, including India Navigation, Black Saint, and Justin Time. His longest-running professional association was with the Japanese DIW label, for whom he recorded over 30 times in the ’80s and ’90s. 

Unlike many tenor saxophonists, he never touches the soprano, though he has recorded often on the bass clarinet, including the self-explanatory Ballads For Bass Clarinet, from 1991. Although he has some favorite sidemen, like pianist John Hicks and bassist Fred Hopkins, he tends to change personnel on virtually every album, heading into the studio with a concept, exploring it to his satisfaction, then moving on. (One notable exception came in 1988, when he recorded five albums — Lovers, Deep River, Ballads, Spirituals, and Tenors — with the same group: Dave Burrell on piano, Hopkins on bass, and Ralph Peterson on drums.)

Given his nature as a conceptualist, it’s no surprise that many of Murray’s best albums arise out of his exploration of archetypal jazz forms or ensembles. His 1991 release Shakill’s Warrior featured a funky organ quartet; his long-running octet (five horns plus rhythm) made its debut with 1980’s brilliant Ming and has reappeared from time to time ever since. He also formed a big band that year, which made two solid records before disbanding. (A decade later, he assembled a different Latin Big Band for one album.) He has explored gospel and the blues, and the musical traditions of Cuba, Senegal and Guadeloupe; recorded duos with several notable pianists, including Randy Weston, Dave Burrell, Mal Waldron, John Hicks and Aki Takase; and made multiple solo albums. He’s slowed his pace in recent years and settled into elder statesman status, but his catalog is deep enough by now that listening to it all could be a scholar’s lifetime project.

Flowers for Albert cover

Murray’s second album, released in 1976 and reissued on CD at twice its original length in 1991, is a live quartet performance from the Ladies’ Fort, one of the better-known New York performance spaces of the loft era. Murray, joined by trumpeter Olu Dara, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Phillip Wilson, churns through seven pieces, several of which he would re-record many times. As the album’s title hints, there’s a lot of Albert Ayler in his melodies and his early style, but the music swings pretty hard at times, too, pointing to the traditionalism that would manifest more and more strongly in the ’80s.

The Hill cover

This 1986 trio album, featuring bassist Richard Davis and drummer Joe Chambers, is an interesting one-off. Murray never recorded with this rhythm section again, and they took him into different zones than he would explore with his quartet or octet. Davis, a brilliant bassist who’s worked with everyone from Andrew Hill to Van Morrison (he was the de facto bandleader on Astral Weeks), delivers a stunning bowed solo on Murray’s “Santa Barbara And Crenshaw Follies”; later, the trio romp through Duke Ellington’s “Take The Coltrane” and Chambers switches to vibes on a lovely version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.”

Perfection cover

This 2016 trio session turned out to be pianist Geri Allen’s final recording — she died in 2017 — but the feeling throughout is joyous and celebratory, the sound of three musicians feeling their individual and collective power, particularly Terri Lyne Carrington, who’s one of the hardest-hitting drummers around. On a version of Ornette Coleman’s “Perfection,” they’re joined by trumpeter Wallace Roney, trombonist Craig harris, and bassist Charnett Moffett, but otherwise it’s wall-to-wall power trio action (punctuated by multiple thrilling sax-drums and piano-drums duo passages).

Speaking In Tongues cover

David Murray grew up in a Pentecostal family, so this 1999 album of hymns and gospel songs, with Fontella Bass on lead vocals, makes sense. The band features trumpeter Hugh Ragin (whose solos might be more thrilling than Murray’s), guitarist Stanley Franks, keyboardist Jimane Nelson, funk bassist Clarence “Pookie” Jenkins, drummer Ranzell Merritt and percussionist Leopoldo Fleming. The opening version of “How I Got Over” will have the congregation on its feet, and much of the rest of the album is traditional and equally well-known material like “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen,” “A Closer Walk With Thee,” and of course “Amazing Grace,” which Murray plays on bass clarinet.

Real Deal cover

Murray has worked with a number of jazz’s most important drummers, including Rashied Ali, Roy Haynes, Andrew Cyrille, Steve McCall, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Sunny Murray, Ralph Peterson, Hamid Drake and more. This 1991 duo CD was his sole encounter with percussion legend Milford Graves, and it’s a standout even in his vast discography. Graves, who started out as a trap drummer in Latin bands, is always more about the up-top than the down-low; he rumbles across the toms and snare, tagging the cymbals as he goes, but kicks the bass drum much more rarely, and he’s not interested in “time” as much as “pulse”; his drumming is built around human biological rhythms, so listening to it for long enough feels like it changes the way your blood rushes through your veins. A linear, melody-based player like Murray is going to be left with only one option: to float on top of the endlessly swirling percussive ocean, occasionally matching Graves’ energy but mostly pursuing his own interests, playing long winding lines, often ending in high-pitched squeals, with the drums as a constant backdrop.

Body and Soul cover

When one considers how much Coleman Hawkins is buried underneath the Albert Ayler-isms in David Murray’s saxophone style, it’s astonishing that he didn’t record the older man’s signature piece, “Body and Soul,” until 1984’s Morning Song. He returns to the standard on this 1993 quartet date with pianist Sonelius Smith, bassist Wilber Morris and drummer Rashied Ali. He’s in a supporting role on the title track, backing singer Taana Running and delivering a mellow solo that never tries to outdo Hawkins’ immortal 1939 recording. The album’s other highlights include the opening “Slave Song,” the pounding “Remembering The Chief Of St. Mary’s,” the bluesy “Odin,” and the closing “Cuttin’ Corners,” a duo with Ali that’s an obvious tribute to the drummer’s work on John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space.

Live at Sweet Basil, Vol. 1 cover

Murray’s big band wasn’t that big — only 11 players — but the lineup was absolutely stacked: Olu Dara on cornet, Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Vincent Chancey on flugelhorn, Craig Harris on trombone, Bob Stewart on tuba, Steve Coleman on soprano and alto saxes, John Purcell on alto sax and clarinet, Rod Williams on piano, Fred Hopkins on bass, Billy Higgins on drums, and Lawrence “Butch” Morris conducting them. There’s a little bit of Ellingtonian swing, a little bit of New Orleans polyphony, and a whole lot of Murray soloing with the band swaying behind him.

Gwotet cover

Gwo-ka is a polyrhythmic folk music, played on hand drums, originating on the islands of the Guadeloupean archipelago in the Francophone Caribbean. It dates back to the 17th century, but modern gwo-ka performers like drummer and vocalist Klod Kiavue have updated the music somewhat, adding electric bass, congas, and djembe. Gwotet is Murray’s third collaboration with Kiavue, and the music is sweeter and rougher by turns than on 1998’s Creole or 2002’s Yonn-Dé, where they first took the band name David Murray & The Gwo-Ka Masters; some pieces feature as many as eight horns, and gentle, almost highlife-esque guitar. But Murray’s solos frequently reach screaming heights of ecstasy, and when special guest Pharoah Sanders turns up on “Ouagadougou” and “Ovwa,” the energy level goes through the ceiling.

Shakill’s Warrior cover

This 1992 release is one of Murray’s mellowest non-ballad releases; it’s an organ jazz date with Don Pullen at the keys, Stanley Franks on guitar, and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Cyrille’s innate precision and sharp, cracking snare are perfect for these bluesy, soulful grooves, and Franks mostly stays out of the way as Pullen and Murray dig deep without ever exploding the way the listener might expect. This is old-school soul jazz in the mid ’60s Blue Note tradition, with just a few avant-garde outbursts to keep things exciting.

Ming cover

One of David Murray’s best-loved groups comes roaring out of the gate on their 1980 debut. The front line consists of Murray on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Henry Threadgill on alto sax, Olu Dara on trumpet, Lawrence “Butch” Morris on cornet, and George Lewis on trombone, with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Wilber Morris, and drummer Steve McCall in support. The five compositions, all by Murray, combine the fullness of Ellington with raucous free jazz intensity. Opener “The Fast Life” lives up to its title, exploding at punk-rock speed, and even the title piece, a romantic ballad written for Murray’s wife at the time, boils with intensity.