David Murray Octet
Black Saint : 1982
DM, bass clarinet; Henry Threadgill, bass flute; Olu Dara, trumpet; Lawrence “Butch” Morris, cornet; George Lewis, trombone; AnthonyÂ Davis, piano; Wilber Morris, bass; Steve McCall, percussion.
DIW : 1989
DM, tenor sax; Dave Burrell, piano.
Folks could be forgiven for thinking that every tenor sax they hear — on a barroom jukebox; fromÂ an open window;Â backing a shampoo commercial; on a subway platform; under the closing credits — is David Murray’s.Â The man has impressive list of recordings to his credit, and an almost equally impressive number of dates as a sideman. Yet only last year Tom Hull wrote in the Village Voice that, despite Murray’s status as “far and away the greatest tenor saxophonist of his generation,” his records are “hard to find, little known, and in many cases out of print.”
This isÂ hard to believe. Not so much the out of print part, which afflicts seemingly everyone in jazz, butÂ “little known”? Is that possibly true? If it is,Â part of the reason lies in Murray’s willingness to ally himself with some phenomenal musicians, and to forego the star-making solo turn for somethingÂ more wedded to a group dynamic andÂ ensemble sound. This is principly true of his work as one of the fourÂ originalÂ pillars of the World Saxophone Quartet (the only group to get more votes than John Carter in the VoiceÂ 1980s jazz poll). It is also strikingly true of his octet work onÂ Black Saint.
This band is insane; no weak links (and a pair of brothers). The trackÂ fromÂ HomeÂ opens with an understated chiming piano intro by Davis. Then the band enters softly, tiptoeing onto center stage, all humming the sameÂ sighing note. The tone here is one of flooding tranquility, best represented by Threadgill’s breathtakingÂ bass flute soloÂ — one of his very best turns on the instrument. Nobody in the band rushes the tune or strains to be heard. The musicians mesh into a single tapestry, finding a sound somewhere north of Ellington and west of Mingus, a mellow tone that would be perfectly soothing if it weren’t also so fragile.
Several years later, Murray revisits the tune as part of hisÂ marathon January 1988 sessions for DIW that resulted inÂ five separate albums. A duet with longtime collaborator Dave Burrell, the rigorous discipline of the octet version is replaced by a fluid, more demonstrative energy.Â Murray initially takes the spotlight, teasing out notes andÂ spiking the lovely melody with dissonant flourishes. Burrell commands the second half of the song with a solo that’s equal parts zen meditation and atonal cluster bombs. Serious minimalist swagger.
We don’t usually dig the compare and contrast mode, but these two versions of “Home” are radically different enough to warrant your attention. The first, showcasing Murray as composer and arranger, sounds like an idealized notion of home as imagined by a crew on their way, yet in no hurry to get there. The second highlights MurrayÂ the soloist; this guy’s been home for a while and has started to notice some new cracks in the foundation, missing slate on the roof, a boiler on its last legs. There’s no place like it, for better and for worse.
It’s only naturual such a restless player would reinvent a tune about home. DuringÂ the 1980s, especially, we imagine Murray as little more than a blur, continually rushing between live dates and studio sessions, churning out albums and racking up frequent-flier miles, home being anyplace he hangs his horn. Â
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