David Murray Conceptual Saxophone track by track: Flowers for Albert May 21, 2007Posted by wallofsound in David Murray, Jazz.
There are ten versions of ‘Flowers for Albert’ to be listened to on Murray recordings, and this was the second time it surfaced. The first time – recorded nearly 18 months earlier – it was used as the title track of Murray’s first record as a leader. First time round you get a quartet playing a version of over fourteen minutes live in one of New York’s famous 70s Jazz lofts, the Ladies’ Fort. This time it’s nearer half the length, live again, but with Murray doing everything.
Most bibliographies note that this is named after Albert Ayler, and then infer this as evidence that Murray is an Ayler disciple. The fact that Murray played some of his first New York gigs with his near namesake drummer Sunny Murray – who had been the powerhouse of Ayler’s 1964-5 recordings that included the mighty Spiritual Unity – must have made Murray very aware of Ayler. There are also some undoubted comparisons to be made. The obvious one, most often made, is that both men manipulate the saxophone in a manner that pushes it outside its ‘normal’ musical uses. Murray clearly shares Ayler’s early interest in pushing the mechanics of the instrument to do things few other players realised, or even imagined. Less often noted is the strong roots in, and exploration of, gospel music. Or more specifically the aspects of gospel that relate to the emotional power and ecstatic nature of gospel within African American music.
However, there are far more interesting things at play here. As the title suggests, and as Murray has confirmed in interviews, the flowers are to be left in memorial of Ayler’s death. The melody captures this perfectly. Both early versions start with solo renditions of the melody, but while the 1976 recording tantalises us with fragments of the melody for a good minute before playing it through, the 1978 version reverses this strategy. All but one of the later versions would stick with the latter strategy. This is a simple and catchy line, and this interest in song-like melodies is probably the strongest characteristic of all Murray’s work. In interviews Murray tells us that the striking melodic line that accounts came into his head as he walked past the place on the banks of the East River where Ayler’s body was found. So, while other commentators make the link to Ayler playing in life as Murray’s major stylistic influence, we should perhaps see the sadness at his death as a catalyst for one example of Murray’s ability to articulate deep emotional responses through musical sound.
The consistent use of the title to link Murray stylistically to Ayler is misguided. Listening to either recording, though, suggest far more interesting connections. In the 1978 recording the melancholy melody is played once at funereal pace, comfortably within the tenor’s usual range. Then a foghorn restatement, alternating with delicacy, builds faster into a jig, then slows into abstraction. Like so much of Murray’s work this is an investigation of contrast and counterpoint; an exploration of the whole history of Jazz technique, and a meandering, but deeply emotional, outpouring of ideas.
For all his supposed influence Ayler only appears once as composer of a Murray recording in the nearly 800 tracks available. The point is important because although Murray tends to record mainly his own compositions and those of his closest associates, a small but significant number of his recorded performances are of pieces widely associated with players who Murray has noted as being significant in his personal development. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn are responsible for the bulk of this category, often those connected to the Ellington band’s long term tenor player Paul Gonzalves, but compositions also associated with other tenor players like Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane feature often. The one Ayler composition played by Murray is Ghosts from the mid-1960s, which features on the album Tenors: his celebration of these saxophonists.