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David Murray part two April 11, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in David Murray, Jazz.

2. Black Saint: towards composition, big bands and the tradition 1980 to 1987

While during 1975 to 1979 Murray had recorded in small groups, between 1980 and 87 as leader he recorded in large ensembles.

1975 to 1979 1980 and 87
Leader Leader Other
Solo 3 0 0
Duo 1 0 3
Quartet 5 1 1
Quintet 4 1 0
Septet 0 1 0
Octet 0 4 0
Big Band 0 2 0

Murray premiered the Big Band in July 1978 at New York’s Public Theatre, and the Octet in 1979 at the October festival. Key to this development was Murray’s new manager Kunle Mwanga who organised major musical projects in concert halls and festivals for Murray through to 1989.

Stanley Crouch’s essays in the Village Voice lionised the Manhattan Jazz underground to which Murray belonged. More importantly, though, he continued to provide an intellectual rationale for Murray’s music-making, and a paradigm through which it could be interpreted. He celebrated the way Murray’s associates were “commingling funk, avant-garde, and other Afro-diasporic forms” (Greg Tate 2007 http://www.villagevoice.com/specials/0543,50thetate,69326,31.html). In sleeve notes he located Murray’s big bands experiments as steeped in the legacy of the Jazz tradition. In particular he notes the use of Parker’s counterpoint, Ellington’s harmonies as melodies, and Mingus’ hybridity, while avoiding being derivative or pretentious (Crouch 1980 sleeve notes to Ming).

Almost all the material on Murray’s recordings as leader during this period were self-compositions, the majority dramatic re-arrangements of pieces recorded before. Each an exploration of a particular musical theme rooted in the music’s past. Notable is his developing interest in variety in the use of rhythm. Waltzes, Latin rhythms, investigations of 3/4 time and of a-temporal suspensions are all prominent.

There’s a big contrast with his work as a sideman. He produced three records of duo work with piano players or percussionists. The former are interesting because much of his earlier work generally eschewed piano, but such duos were to become a key theme of his later recordings. The two key albums here are also notable because they cement Murray’s contact with the Japanese Disk Union record company that was to dominate his recorded output from 1987.

In these recordings the themes are usually far wider in source including compositions by the collaborator and some post-Bop standards.

Epistrophy Thelionious Monk
Naima John Coltrane
God Bless The Child Billy Holiday

The WSQ material moves from compositions dominated by Hemphill and Bluiett, to themed albums programmed around Duke Ellington, and R&B. The dramatic change coincides with WSQ’s signing to major label Electra.

Once can speculate that Disk Union and Electra wanted to extend the Murray’s and WSQ market by producing distinctive records with themes that would be widely recognised. The contrast with the freedom afforded by the Black Saint label is instructive. His new contracts did not become exclusive and Black Saint released six more records from Murray during the late 80s and 1990s.

3. DIW, Red Baron and Colombia 1988 to 1995

From 1988, though his output was substantially different. During this period most of his output as a leader is on the Disk Union DIW label, and Bob Thiele’s Red Baron label. Both were far better distributed in the US than the Black Saint material had been because both signed deals with Columbia records, then the leading US record company.

While noticeably different from the pre-1988 material, the records from the two labels were also very different.

The first four DIW records were recorded at a mammoth Quartet recording session in January 1988 and released in themed packages around romantic Jazz saxophone ballads and gospel music. The albums set two clear templates that – along with investigations of R&B – were to dominate Murray’s output for the next 18 years.

There’s also the first interest in African themes on Deep River, and a second exploration of a John Coltrane number. These would become important themes in 200 and beyond.

The Quartet again become Murray’s most common band format, although he did record further large ensembles.

The marketing of the DIW albums was impressive. They were beautifully designed CD releases featuring strong graphical work and cover photographs from Murray’s wife Ming Smith. Each was guided by a distinctive concept around an musical investigation of a particular genre from within the African American tradition of popular music.

However, these never seemed mannered. Murray has commented on the good working relationship he had with executive producer Kazunori Sugiyama, and Murray was clearly given freedom to record what he wanted. While the concepts of the CDs was clear in marketing terms the music was constantly innovative, deeply rooted in Murray’s own interests and backgrounds, and track names often reveal important personal qualities as they had during the Black Saint period.

The music Murray recorded fro Red Baron was less successful, and Murray has expressed frustration on occasions with Bob Thiele’s production. This is surprising as Thiele is probably best known for his support of John Coltrane at Impulse during his most experimental period, and Thiele has often said that he gave Coltrane complete freedom to record what he wanted when.

The Red Baron releases, however, seem to be led by their concept, rather than the music. The first recording with the label was, @@ enough, on a McCoy Tyner date (which itself followed a Quartet recording with Murray on DIW). His successive CDs had a range of themes, which no more eclectic than those on DIW, seem more determined by Thiele than Murray. Murray seems to have been unhappy with one of the CDs being released as The Bob Thiele Collective, and to have taken the biggest exception to one of the CDs being titled Jazzasorus Rex; issued the same year as the Jurassic Park film.

Nevertheless he seemed to sell well enough for the Columbia Portrait label to sign him for one release. The interest in time signatures continues with a Waltz and Samba tracks, and the investigation of Jazz’s past represented by Remembering Fats.

It was during this time that Murray fell out with Crouch, who began the his role as Wynton Marsalis booster with as much energy as he had once done for Murray. In fact Marsalis and Murray were often placed as polar positions in debates about the future of Jazz in the 1990s.

Marsalis has most often been connected with the idea of a Jazz cannon for repertory bands, prestigious roles in education and the grand bourgeoisie’s late embracing of Jazz as America’s classical music. Famously Marsalis is accused of wiping post-60s development in Jazz from the history books. By contrast, Murray has been seen as an advocate for innovation in Jazz; an embrace with other forms of popular music within a Jazz aesthetic, and with a seemingly unquenchable desire to play in new contexts and record the results.

However, Crouch’s role should reveal that the issues were far more complex. It won’t be a surprise to learn that I tend to find more interest in Murray’s explorations than in Marsalis’ neo-tradition repertory approach. However, in truth the two approaches are not as dissimilar as they are often made out to be. Both are rooted in important grasps of Jazz as performance, and as a tradition. In this they owe a lot intellectually to Albert Murray’s investigation of Jazz as a black musical form, and the ideas can bee seen starkly in the black arts movement from whence the Loft movement and collective improvisation came.

While Marsalis owed a considerable debt to the support of the Lincoln Centre, Murray also relied heavily on Arts foundation funding during these years. For example all Murray’s British tours during these years were part of the UK public arts infrastructure. His 1993 Octet tour was funded by the Arts Council’ Contemporary Music Network, and in the West Midlands all his early 1990s concerts were organised by Birmingham Jazz, taking place in arts venues.

Click here for Part Three



1. Andrew Dubber - April 11, 2007

Surely jazz in arts venues in the West Midlands would be the rule rather than the exception… especially concerning internationally notable figures touring other than as part of a larger festival.

2. wallofsound - April 11, 2007

Very true, Andrew. I was making the point that there isn’t much difference between Marsalis and Murray in this respect. Marsalis is often presented as being supported by the bourgeois arts establishment, and Murray as a free spirited independent artist.

3. Tim - April 18, 2007

What a great series. David Murray is one of my favorite musicians, and good writing about his career is scarce. Thanks a lot for your efforts.

4. wallofsound - April 18, 2007

Thank you. You may have guessed he’s one of mine as well.

I’m about to expand this piece with some more detail and some interviews. I’ll ensure that I add a note here when it’s ready.

5. Kunle Mwanga - June 10, 2007


Just a minor correction. I worked with David through 1989, not 1985.

Thank you for your work.

Kunle Mwanga

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