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David Murray

David Murray is world-renowned saxophonist, bass clarinetist, bandleader, composer, and arranger. A prolific recording artist and a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, he has issued close to 100 albums under his own name and has hundreds of credits. A descendant of the abstract improvising style created by Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Archie Shepp, his tone is deep, dark, and warm with a wide vibrato -- it recalls swing-era tenors including Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins -- but seldom adheres to the formal structure of a tune. He's adapted the expressive techniques of his early free jazz self (1976's Flowers for Albert, 1978's 3D Family) to more straight-ahead playing (1993's Ballads for Bass Clarinet, 2011's David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole). He performs standards with emotional intimacy, commanding restraint, and rigorous invention. Murray has led configurations from trios to big bands -- the David Murray Octet (1980-2000) earned renown for its canny, ambitious albums Ming, Home, and Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead -- and he is a deeply sympathetic collaborator, as evidenced by his work with WSQ, Music Revelation Ensemble, the Gwo-Ka Masters, and many more. 2022's Seriana Promethea featured him in the freshly created Brave New World Trio with drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Brad Jones. Murray released Sun/Moon in 2023, a set of tenor saxophone and bass clarinet solos, and in 2024, Francesca, a studio recording with his quartet. Murray hails from Berkeley, California. His parents were musical; his mother played piano and his father guitar. In his youth, Murray played music in church with his parents and two brothers. He was introduced to jazz while a student in the local public school system, playing alto sax in a school band. When he was 13, he played in a local group called the Notations of Soul. Hearing Sonny Rollins inspired him to switch from alto to tenor. He attended Pomona College, where he studied with a former Ornette Coleman sideman, trumpeter Bobby Bradford. Around this time, he was influenced by the writer Stanley Crouch, whom he'd met at Pomona. Murray moved to New York at the age of 20, during the city's loft jazz era -- a time when free jazz found a home in deserted industrial spaces and other undervalued bits of urban real estate below 14th Street. Murray and Crouch opened their own loft space, which they called Studio Infinity. Crouch occasionally played drums in Murray's trio with bassist Mark Dresser. In a relatively short time, Murray (with help from his unofficial publicity agent Crouch) acquired a reputation as a potential great. His early work was exceedingly raw, based as it was on Ayler's example and penchant for multiphonics, distorted timbres, extremes of volume, and forays into the horn's uppermost reaches. He made his first albums in 1976, Flowers for Albert (India Navigation) and Low Class Conspiracy (Adelphi), with a rhythm section featuring bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Phillip Wilson. Also in 1976, Murray became -- with Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett -- a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet. Also around this time, he was commissioned by theatrical impresario Joseph Papp to assemble a big band, which enjoyed a degree of critical success. Out of the big band came the formation of an octet, which provided him a platform for his increasingly ambitious compositions and won global acclaim. During the '80s, Murray performed, toured, and recorded with the WSQ, his octet, and various small bands, recording mostly for the Italian Black Saint label. His octet records of the time (Ming, 1980; Home, 1982; Murray's Steps, 1983) revealed him as a talented composer and arranger, and a fully developed one by the time he released the seminal New Life in 1987. Murray's recording activity reached nearly absurd levels in the '80s and '90s; few contemporary jazz musicians have led more dates on more labels. (His abundant catalog of nearly 100 albums and 500 credits was assembled in less than 50 years). In addition to his own and WSQ's recordings, Murray worked closely with James Blood Ulmer, both as a sideman (Are You Glad to Be in America?) and co-leading the electric jazz outfit Music Revelation Ensemble, which began life with the recording No Wave. But it was also in the '80s that Murray began relying more on the standard jazz repertoire, especially in his small ensemble work. As he got older, the wilder elements of that style were toned down or refined. Murray incorporated free jazz gestures into a more fully rounded voice that also drew on the mainstream of the jazz improvising tradition. During the '90s, the influence of his swing- and bop-playing elders became stronger, even as the passionate abandon and spontaneity that marked his early work were replaced by his attention to the craft of playing the horn. Murray recorded just as often as he had with Black Saint. The DIW label signed a distribution deal with Columbia in the early '90s, and Murray recorded a number of important albums in that decade, including Special Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Fred Hopkins, and Elvin Jones, and Shakill's Warrior with Don Pullen on Hammond B-3, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and guitarist Stanley Franks -- the latter stretched the B-3 soul-jazz genre into entirely new terrain. He cut a one-off album for Red Baron entitled Jazzosaurus Rex, and fronted Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra for the Jazzpar Prize album. During this period, Murray's Black Saint albums began to appear as reissues; record store shelves were bursting with his titles. In 1995, Murray released one of the most compelling and little-known albums in his career on France's Bleuregard imprint. Flowers Around Cleveland was recorded with pianist Bobby Few, drummer John Betsch, and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel -- the rhythm section from the Steve Lacy Quartet. It was a risky match that paid off gloriously; it offered proof that in spite of his towering presence as a soloist, Murray was also a sensitive stylist and team player. In fact, Murray became an inimitable stylist, which was underscored by DIW's release of Ballads for Bass Clarinet that same year. He threw jazz fans a true and deeply satisfying curve ball by releasing Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead on Astor Place, with a large group that included Hopkins, Craig Harris, and even the Dead's own Bob Weir. Murray also began a long and fruitful relationship with Justin Time, a Canadian label distributed through Enja. He recorded what was -- at the time -- the most revolutionary and controversial recording of his career in Fo Deuk Revue, which featured a large group of African and American musicians, with layers of drums and chanted vocals along with poetry and recitations by Amiri Baraka. It wove together funk, jazz, and various African folk styles that began to draw Murray in. They would emerge full-blown in the 21st century. In 1998, he issued four albums of new material. First was another variation on the B-3 soul tip with Jug-A-Lug on DIW, his tribute to the music of Gene Ammons with organist Robert Irving, electric bassist Darryl Jones, and guitarists Bobby Broom and Darryl Thompson, with Olu Dara guesting on trumpet. This was followed on the same label by the moving The Long Goodbye: A Tribute to Don Pullen and the stellar The Tip. Murray also recorded his second album for Justin Time in 1998 with Creole, a large-group effort that offered a meld of jazz as influenced by numerous Latin and Brazilian styles. He also continued to record and tour with the World Saxophone Quartet. In the 21st century, Murray released material prolifically. In 2000, he offered three albums and in 2001, four. Of these, the most satisfying was the 2000 release Octet Plays Trane on Justin Time. In 2002 Murray made the stellar Yonn-Dé for the label, it marked his first collaboration with Africa's Gwo-Ka Masters; the others would be 2004's Gwotet (with Pharoah Sanders) and 2009's The Devil Tried to Kill Me with Taj Mahal. Murray issued a dizzying array of recordings in the 2000s, including Now Is Another Time with his Latin Big Band, Waltz Again in 2005 featuring his quartet in a setting backed by strings, and Silence in 2008, as well as five more with the WSQ. In 2010, Murray's complete Black Saint and Soul Note recordings were given the box set treatment. His first recording of new material in the century's second decade found the saxophonist on Emarcy with a new band called the David Murray Cuban Ensemble. Their debut for the label was Plays Nat King Cole en Español, released in October of 2011, which interpreted, song for song, two albums the singer and pianist recorded in Spanish and Portuguese in 1958 and 1962, respectively. Murray's fiery persona as a vanguard improviser continued to reveal itself in performances and on select recordings. That said, his abilities as an artful composer, arranger, and bandleader who also happens to be a master technician on both tenor saxophone and bass clarinet are manifested more frequently. He debuted the Infinity Quartet on 2013's Be My Monster Love with pianist Marc Cary, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and drummer Nasheet Waits. The album also featured cameo appearances from vocalists Macy Gray and Gregory Porter, and trumpeter Bobby Bradford, the saxophonist's former teacher. In 2017, Murray collaborated with renowned Japanese composer and pianist Aki Takase on the album Cherry Sakura. Back in 2014, Murray attended the funeral of longtime friend, poet, and activist Amiri Baraka, with whom he had collaborated on the albums New Music, New Poetry in 1982, 1984's Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed, and 1988's Conjure: Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon. At the funeral he witnessed Saul Williams reciting a poem. The chance encounter led to a collaboration between the two artists, with Williams sending Murray a collection of poems to set to music. Like Baraka, Williams is challenging. He is socially and politically engaged and consistently employs visceral images in his work. Their recorded collaboration was released in 2018 as Blues for Memo. It features Williams stringing together images on topics ranging from politics to the nature of consciousness, from health, capitalism, and forced labor to poems about earth formations and cosmic time. The following year, Murray was a featured guest with Paul Zauner's Blue Brass on Roots 'n' Wings, and in 2020 he was a co-billed soloist on Kahil El 'Zabar's Spirit Groove. In 2022, he made another such appearance on See You Out There by the Dave Gisler Trio. The year also saw him resume recording under his own with his newly formed Brave New World Trio with drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Brad Jones. They issued the jointly composed Seriana Promethea for Intakt in May. Murray returned home to the U.S. and New York City in 2023, following a decades-long sojourn in Paris. He released the vinyl-only Sun/Moon on JMI, composed solely of tenor saxophone and bass clarinet solos. The following year he released Francesca on Intakt, featuring his working quartet with pianist Marta Sanchez, bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Russell Carter.
© Thom Jurek & Chris Kelsey /TiVo


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