Without question, Sunny Murray would take a prominent place in the history of jazz innovators even if he had only made two recordings: the 1962 live session with Cecil Taylor at the Cafe Montmartre, Copenhagen, and the Albert Ayler Trio’s 1964 landmark ESP-Disk debut, Spiritual Unity. Prior recordings by Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman freed up jazz melodies from traditional Western chord progressions, but they did so with the backing of conventional hard-bop rhythm sections. Murray broke through that remaining barrier and freed jazz time for new and previously uncharted realms of rhythmic exploration.
Nearly half a century later, I feel like we still lack the proper terminology with which to describe Murray’s innovations. That old warhorse, the metronome, is usually trotted out but really becomes something of an antithetical strawman, here and also with respect to traditional swing, which eludes adherence to a strict number of beats per minute either–unless it’s, say, a consistent millisecond or two ahead of or behind the metronome. Critics will often prefer the term “pulse” when discussing Sunny’s time, but that too strikes me as inadequate because, when not quickened or slowed by some kind of stimuli, a pulse usually remains fairly regular.
Phil Freeman, in his well-researched piece for The Wire, describes “Murray’s ability to break down bar lines and go from bebop timekeeping to creating an amorphous, pulsing rhythm.” Murray creates and responds to pulses to be sure, but far more than that I hear reverberations and echoes, sounds not just in space but shaping and forming it. WHAP WHAp WHap Whap whap goes his snare, for example, and the presence of that sonic shape and form remain long after the moment of its temporal creation has passed. Elsewhere in the space, the hi-hats are chattering constantly, chik chik chik chik chik. If Kenny Clarke’s bop drumming innovation shifted the kit’s primary time-keeping function from the kick drum (as it had been in swing) to the ride cymbal, perhaps Murray elevated the hi-hats to that role, and not just on the off-beats. There is no off-beat in Sunny’s time: every beat is on. And on(e).
And then, the cymbals… here too, the conventional distinction between “ride” and “crash” cymbal carries little relevance. Both shimmer, shudder and sing, the melodies determined in part by their different weights and densities. And herein, I think, lies the heart of Murray’s music: his playing adds and removes different densities to the overall field he creates and shapes with his collaborators, each at times approaching the creation of, if not a black hole that would suck the whole universe into it, perhaps neutron stars, pulsars rather than pulses?
Sunny’s space-time forces nothing short of a belated musical reckoning with Einstein’s insights and an acknowledgement of the spatial qualities inherent to time. The poet Clark Coolidge, who in his early career as a jazz drummer found him gigging with one of Murray’s earliest bandmates in the Cecil Taylor groups, bassist Buell Neidlinger, puts it this way:
As a drummer you’re holding time’s cutting edge in your right hand (ride cymbal), a simultaneity of holding and shaping. You occupy the center of the sonic sphere, the world, and ride it and bear it, inviolable (why heroin is Bop’s perfect chemical). And everything that happens there happens once and at once. Once and Ounce, Groove and Chord, Wave and Particle: the Complementarity of Bop. (Now It’s Jazz 93-94)
Of all the tribute I have read in the wake of Murray’s passing this past week, I think Hank Shteamer gets closest to my sense of Murray’s presence and force in the music: “Murray hovers as a kind of restless background spirit. It might seem too convenient to equate the supernatural overtones of Ayler’s music (‘Spirits,’ ‘Ghosts,’ etc.) with Murray’s place in the music, but I think there is something inherently otherworldly about his playing.” Shteamer goes on, rightly I think, to call Murray an “outlier” but resists “portray[ing] him as some inscrutable savant.” These are words worth exploring a bit further.
Murray certainly occupied a place at some remove from our established or acknowledged centers or systems. There’s no easy placing him in a pantheon of percussion peers and precursors. Ayler’s self-styled trinity offers no quaternary parallel for the likes of Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves and Sunny Murray. As much if not more than any of his immediate peers, however, time and again it was his swing and bop elders that Murray regularly cited and praised as forming the society he sought, a lineage he traced going back to Sid Catlett, whom he recounts coming to him one night in the late 1950s in a vision fueled in part by cooked wine laced with ground nutmeg.
As Emily Dickinson’s poem reminds us, “The soul selects her own society,” and sometimes it’s an odd fit. The most vivid demonstration of this comes in the footage from a night at the 1968 Copenhagen Jazz Festival. Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers take the stage for a full set. Next is Max Roach, who performs a briefer solo set. Then the Elvin Jones Trio, with Joe Farrell and Jimmy Garrison, does a full set. Then comes Sunny Murray for a solo set.
Unlike the other acts that were set up more centrally on the stage, Murray’s kit is set up far stage left near the curtains. He walks out and apologizes while he finishes setting up and adjusting his kit. Then he begins straight away, working the kit and himself up with full force, adding to it that otherworldly vocal moan heard on his recordings with Ayler. It’s both fascinating and disturbing to watch, as Murray’s facial expressions continuously flicker between roar and grimace for nearly the full, brief set, which ends abruptly when Murray loses the grip on the drumstick in his right hand (which, it should be remembered as he tells Jason Weiss in Jazz Times, was missing parts of his middle fingers due to an accident Murray suffered while working in a Philadelphia steel factory).
He bows and walks off to decent applause, and as members of the previous groups return to the stage, it becomes clear that a jam session will conclude the proceedings. With Blakey and Jones already behind their kits, Murray rejoins the stage for an up-tempo bop number, playing along for part of it, given a solo opportunity by the others, and at times just sitting out. The number concludes and the audience applauds enthusiastically, which Murray receives while taking his place standing side-by-side with Jones.
The two or three years Murray spent working through the ranks or hard bop, as he described to Dan Warburton in 2000, were significant, but far more valuable were the few years after that time he spent woodshedding with a pianist who lived in the same lower Manhattan loft, Cecil Taylor. That work bore immediate fruit, though the 1960 recordings for Candid originally omitted tracks that included Murray, and the 1961 Impulse recordings were released under the banner of the Gil Evans Orchestra.
From the November 1962 recordings at the Cafe Montmarte, Copenhagen, to the July 1964 Spiritual Unity session, Murray demonstrates not only a clearly formed style but a versatility in adapting that style to different players. With Taylor, Murray settles into something like a heartbeat’s THUMP-thump pulse, combined with the gallop of a thoroughbred horse or possibly a bucking bronco. With Ayler, however, those snare drum WHAPs are more clearly an insistently setting up those spatial densities and reverberations I talked about earlier.
Murray’s first sessions as a leader remain impressive in their own respects. Sonny’s [sic] Time Now sounds almost identical to its contemporary Ayler Quintet recordings except that the compositions are all Murray’s. Thus it’s a rare delight to hear Ayler as a sideman soloing along with the bandleader’s tunes. Murray’s self-titled ESP-Disk date would be worthwhile solely for debuting both Byard Lancaster and Jacques Coursil. The additional saxophonist here, Jack Graham, appears not to have made any additional recordings.
Such was part of the pleasure in revisiting the Murray recordings I could this past week–as with so many contemporary outlier artists, his back catalog is in shambles. Michael Ehrlers made a fine choice reissuing 1969’s Big Chief on his Eremite label, and excellent international octet session including another one-off appearance, this time by poet Hart LeRoy Bibbs.
I find the late-1960s free-jazz blowing sessions found mostly on BYG and a few other labels to be a mixed bag, tainted by the stories advanced by Murray and others of BYG’s lack of payments to the artists and other gangster tactics. I was only able to revisit his sideman sessions during this period, not his leader dates, but the clear standouts to me are Dave Burrell’s Echo and Clifford Thornton’s Ketchaoua. These are very well balanced performances: Burrell splits the album with side one’s title track blowing session and side two’s aptly-titled “Peace,” which features a simple major scale as its main theme. Thornton’s offering as balance throughout, with fierce blowing tempered by expansive space and assorted percussion.
One odd contribution Murray makes during this period is to the Black Gypsy and Pitchin’ Can session, partly under the joint leadership of Archie Shepp and blues harmonica player and singer Chicago Beau (who also featured on some contemporaneous Art Ensemble of Chicago recordings). The title track of “Black Gypsy” calls for a 4-bar backbeat, which Murray never quite sustains. Shepp plays soprano sax exclusively here, to which I have no objection as some critics do; the other reed player acknowledge though, Noah Howard, remains in the altissimo register for the entire track.
Other standouts from my week’s relistening come from the 1970s and Murray’s working group of the time, The Untouchable Factor. Charred Earth (Kharma 1977) is a quartet date with Lancaster, Burrell and Bob Reid, featuring two covers (“Seven Steps to Heaven” by Miles Davis and “Peace” by Horace Silver) along with three Murray originals. Apples Cores (Philly Jazz 1978) features larger lineups various players, some otherwise unknown to me and worthy of more attention: guitarist Monnette Sudler, soprano player Frank Foster, and Youseff Yancy on trumpet and electronics. More well-known players include Don Pullen, Cecil McBee, Fred Hopkins, Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett. The standout track for me, though, is the 18+ minute epic “New York Maze,” which features some especially inspired soloing from Bluiett.
Charred Earth also bears fruitful comparison with 1980’s Aigu-Grave, a nominal quintet date with percussionist Pablo Sauvage appearing on two of the five tracks; the rest of the group features French tenor saxophonist Richard Raux, Bobby few and Alan Silva. Its two leading tracks, “Happiness Tears” and “Tree Tops,” are memorable Murray compositions also included on Charred Earth, where they are given freer and perhaps more satisfying treatments. The theme of “Happiness Tears” searches through some minor intervals before resolving in a cheerful major chord. The Charred Earth version is taken and a preferable tempo, which drags a bit on Aigu-Grave especially in the opening statement. “Tree Tops” is a haunting ballad reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Alabama” and I think again benefits more from the tempo choice (this time slower) found on Charred Earth.
Far and away though, my favorite Murray recording from this period–and easily one of my favorite recordings of all time–is Jump Up, his trio recording with Jimmy Lyons and John Lindberg. The group’s billing as the “Jimmy Lyons & Sunny Murray Trio” nominally puts Lindberg, at the time only in his early twenties and thus perhaps not deserving equal billing, is unquestionably an equal presence in the music. The recording captures the trio live at the 1980 Willisau Jazz Festival, and it’s a stunning performance from start to finish.
Lyons periodically stepped away from his twenty years of duty as Cecil Taylor’s sideman to record his own dates as a leader–more often than, say, Sun Ra’s highly regarded and influential tenor man, John Gilmore. But on Jump Up it’s a sheer delight to hear Lyons front and center making every bit of every moment. Charlie Parker’s influence on Lyons’ playing has always been instantly recognizable, and here the title track’s primary melodic figure is the classic bebop octave drop. But completely unique is the character Lyons imparts upon the Parker influence. In fact, I can’t think of a single saxophone stylist more focused than Lyons: not just in his tone, phrasing and attack, but in the horn’s register. He consistently avoids the alto’s lower registers and focuses his surgical precision exclusively on the middle-high range of the horn, preening and grooming his brood of lines like a mother bird. That consistency and patience makes those rare moments here, and even rarer on his recordings with Taylor, when his tone erupts into the squawking extremes, all the more ecstatic. Lindberg and Murray both give peak performances on Jump Up as well, making you wish they had worked together more regularly. At this early stage in his career, Lindberg could work all the implications of a melodic line and run the full range of arco playing, soaring up into the extremes and then bottoming out on an opening bowed string in perfect complement with Murray’s snare and cymbal flourishes.
There’s so much more that needs to be said and discovered about James Marcellus Arthur Murray, which leads me back to Hank Shteamer’s other choice phrasing that I didn’t explore earlier, namely his resistance to “portray[ing Murray] as some inscrutable savant.” I get Shteamer’s point, but I think an emphasis on the positive connotations of that phrase can go far to mitigate our hesitation. “Humanity’s life depends on the unknown,” Sun Ra stated in the documentary A Joyful Noise. Our outliers, prophets and apostates, however much they stood apart from our space and time, by accident or chance and through their sheer humanity, remained and remain a part of us. We have to learn from the examples given us by our “unknowable knowers,” now more than ever.
[updated 12 December 2017]