Jazz Matters: David Murray

It was my friend, the late David Kresh, who first attuned me to the controlled fury that is David Murray. A one person compendium of the tenor saxophone, a Murray solo can stretch from the honk and rasp of the R & B bands in which he learned his trade, to the keening stratospheric upper-register yelps of an Albert Ayler and the avant-garde, without straying far from the rich and muscular mainstem of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In print, Murray has vouchsafed Paul Gonsalves as a major influence, and if that isn’t always tonally evident, it is present in the way he muscles rhythmically from phrase to phrase, line to line – evident also in that the length of most Murray solos seems  inspired by Gonsalves’ famous 27 chorus solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue in front of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

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I first saw David Murray play at a smallish club in Nottingham, after that in the brutal splendour of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, and then again, last week, at another small venue, the Vortex in Dalston, east London. The first of two nights and to say it was packed would have been an understatement; jazz & crime fiction aficionado, Bob Cornwell and I had snagged the last pair of seats going, close up against the stage with our backs to the window facing out onto Gillett Square – any closer and I would have on top of the drummer’s kit rather than alongside it.

Humourously bemused by the weather – it was a day of unending torrential rain and he had flown in that morning without as much as a coat – Murray was in a relaxed mood (he even sang, pleasingly, on a couple of numbers)  and played, I thought, well within himself, eschewing much of the ferocity of which he’s capable. Which is not to say that he didn’t play with great virtuosity and rhythmic brilliance.

Sharing the front line with trombonist Paul Zauner, with whom he’s played, off and on, since the 80s, Murray was backed by bassist Wolfram Derschmidt and drummer Dusan Novakov, with Carlton Holmes at the piano. It may have been a relatively new rhythm section– he had to refer to a scrap of paper before announcing their names – but they had no problems following the shifts and changes, and soloed well. Sitting as close to Novakov as I was, I was able to follow his playing closely, my admiration soured only by the regret that I’d swopped my drum kit for a pair of DJ turntables somewhere back in the 70s and never pushed my own playing beyond the merely passable when I’d had the chance. I can dream, can’t I?

Here’s something I wrote after seeing Murray on that first occasion …

Grace Notes

Let’s say it’s one of those
insubstantial inner-city days,
from the flower beds in the park
to the slim-hipped cellist
playing the inevitable Bach.

And say, strolling home, I chance to pass
this bar just hours after David Murray
has jet-lagged in from New York.
It’s light enough still for the doors
to be open out onto the street;
the sound and the small crowd
draw me inside, and there on stage
before bass and drums he stands:
back arched, chest pigeoned forward,
horn angled outwards as he rocks
lightly back from heel to toe,
toeing the line of a calypso so true,
the crowd, as one, leans back and smiles,
relaxed, not noticing those heels
have lifted with an extra bounce
and before anyone can blink
his left leg kicks out in the curve
of a high hurdler; his tenor twists
and soars and lifts us, holds us to him,
wrapped in curlicues of sound,
blessed by the effortless grace
of his playing.

from Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

 

 

 

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Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, Shining a Light, Keeping Track …

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It wasn’t a bad night [though that came, and with a vengeance, later]. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at the Union Chapel in north London, the second night of the UK leg of their Shine a  Light tour, which began in Nashville, Tennessee and will finish, after appropriate breaks, in Melbourne, Australia. A tour about a tour.

It began in back in March when the two musicians, plus a little recording equipment, plus guitars, boarded a train in Chicago and began a journey that would take them south and then west across the United States, stopping at St. Louis, Poplar Bluff, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine, El Paso and Tucson on the way. Some 2,728 miles of track. And here and there along the way, they would find a waiting room or similar space in which to record a song. A song that, in one way or another, was inspired by the rails, boxcars, the iron horse, the lonely whistle of a freight train passing through the night. Train songs, folk songs, Leadbelly songs.

Two men with a couple of guitars each and an upright piano standing off stage right. Henry’s voice is the higher, distinctive, slightly nasal; Bragg’s, a deeper baritone, takes on an American tone. [An American tune.] Two of the first three songs – Railroad Bill & John Henry – I know well from my own fledgling skiffle group days,  as, it transpires, does my companion for the evening – jazz aficionado and crime writing critic and commentator [I like to refer to him as the thinking man’s Barry Forshaw – sorry, Barry!] – Bob Cornwell. Bob shared with me, as I discovered in the interval, the distinction of having played single string tea chest bass in a youthful, enthusiastic and, by the sound of it,not overly successful skiffle group in our teenage years. Both of our initial public appearances seem to have ended precipitously with a request to pack up our things and leave the building. No matter, those songs brought it all back in its dubious glory – as, later on, did The Midnight Special and, of course, Rock Island Line.

While we were talking about this that Bob raised the name of Lonnie Donegan, not quite the first but certainly the most famous British skiffler, saying that he thought Donegan had never quite got his due. It was a point taken up strongly by Bragg during the second half, when he mentioned a book he has just finished writing which marks Donegan’s recording of Rock Island Line – the first record to top the UK charts featuring someone singing and playing guitar – as the major turning point in popular music; where previously it had been, to a greater or lesser degree, based on or around jazz and jazz instrumentation, from hereon it, it would be about guitars.

In addition to the songs they performed together, each man played a short solo set, Henry taking to the piano for a Randy Newman-influenced This Was My Country [painfully prophetic in the light of what was to come through the early hours of the morning, but leavened by hope nonetheless] and finishing with a beautiful and deeply felt version of Alain Toussaint’s Freedom For The Stallion. Unsurprisingly, Bragg, digging into his back list for  Accident Waiting to Happen and There is Power in a Union, voice reverting to its London twang, was the more directly political, pointing up the links between Brexit and what was happening politically in America, and drawing a clear connection, via Woody Guthrie, between the treatment meted out to the Okies when they left the dustbowl in the 30s and headed out to California looking for work and a better life for their children and what was being done to refugees in various parts of Europe on our behalf.

We stepped out into the night knowing we’d experienced something special. The UK leg of the tour takes a break two-thirds of the way through November, picks up again in January. You can find the details here …

If they come near you, try not to miss out.

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iPod Shuffle, June 2016

Seeking greater variety and a different set of ears, I’ve asked my friend, Bob Cornwell, crime reviewer and fellow jazz fan, to send along the fruits of his iPod shuffle, these particular tracks emerging as he was cutting the foot-long grass in his back garden.

The Long Waiting : Kenny Wheeler Big Band
Sad Mood : Sam Cooke (1960)
Hager Fikier : Mulatu Astatke with Step Ahead
Like a Fool : Shelby Lynne
The Monarch and the Milkweed : Maria Schneider Orchestra
He Was Too Good to Me : Helen Merrill
Don’t Lose Faith in Me : Chrissie Hynde
Wasn’t Expecting That : Jamie Lawson (2015)
No Easy Way Down : Dusty Springfield
Out of Nowhere : Pee Wee Russell (Nat Pierce on piano)
She’s Funny That Way : Lester Young with Joe Albany
Danza Ritual del Fuego : Paco de Lucia with Grupo Dolores (including his brother, known professionally as Ramón De Algeciras)

First, the three contrasting big (or biggish) band tracks. Kenny Wheeler’s The Long Waiting was his penultimate recording, two years before his death in 2014, The title track features a gloriously brassy but light-footed all-star ensemble fleshed out (Norma Winstone-style) by Italian vocalist Diana Torto, with solos by Ray Warleigh on alto, and Kenny, marvellously expressive, if a little wobbly here and there (he was 82 at the time).

The Mulatu Astatke title is of a traditional Ethiopian theme with solos by Astatke on vibes, James Arben on flute and a range of Ethiopian percussion. Elsewhere on the record is John Edwards on bass, Byron Wallen on trumpet Alexander Hawkins on piano and Tom Skinner on drums. Just prior to its purchase I had heard Rowland Sutherland’s challenging ‘re-envisioning’ of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme at the Union Chapel in December 2014, probably the most exhilarating jazz gig I had heard since, well, the first visit here of Maria Schneider’s New York band in 2006. So much recent jazz, perhaps too European or classically influenced, seemed to me to be lacking in vigour. As well as the Astatke record, glorious gigs by the Sun Ra band (under the direction of Marshall Allen) and by the revitalised Louis Moholo-Moholo unit followed. The latter also features Hawkins, Edwards and the never less than vigorous Jason Yarde. (Don’t miss them at Ronnies, along with Shabaka Hutchings on 13/14 June).

There is too much classical influence, it has been suggested, in The Thompson Fields, the new (Emmy Award winning) Maria Schneider album. Maybe, but for me, this is the most moving big band album I have ever heard (just listen in sequence to Walking by Flashlight, The Thompson Fields and Home). Here, in a meditation on ‘mystifyingly complex relationships in nature’, the Monarch (Butterfly) is represented by Marshall Gilkes (trombone) and (no offence Greg!) the Milkweed by Greg Gilbert (fluegelhorn). When jazz combines thrillingly with classical influences like this, maybe that’s just what we should do. Meditate on the mystifyingly complex relationship between the two…

Finally the spectre at the wedding: Gil Evans. Gil is surely somewhere in the mix for Kenny Wheeler; Gil is cited as an influence by Mulatu Astatke, and where would Maria Schneider be without Gil? Back in 1956 Gil Evans completed the first album for which he wrote all the arrangements. It was for the unique voice of Helen Merrill (once credited by Miles Davis for his close-to-the-mike muted trumpet technique). Thirty odd years later, the pair assembled a completely new personnel and re-recorded an almost-identical programme with similar arrangements. The comparisons with the earlier versions are never less than fascinating (and pleasurable). But for me, the later versions, as in this beautiful Rogers & Hart song, Merrill’s even more exquisite interpretations have the edge.

Jamie Lawson? A selection by my 11-year old grand-daughter. [13 million views on YouTube] Go on, admit it, it’s rather good. Dusty and Lester, no list is complete without them…

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