Listen to David Murray play. First, marvel at the clear, ringing beauty of his tone. It's a deep sound, the soulful essence of emotional clarity. He can make the simple act of breathing into his saxophone -- even in warmups -- sound like a message from the heavens.
But most of the time he's doing much more than just breathing. He loves riffs, building much of his style from the blueprints laid down by such Duke Ellington stalwarts as Paul Gonsalves and Ben Webster. He carries the recognizable melodic figures as long as the individual piece warrants. But once he lets go of those ... that's when the mystical stuff starts happening.
"There has to be a certain kind of tension and release inside a concert," Murray says in a phone interview. "Otherwise, you lose the audience. But, you know, just for the musicians ourselves, I try to have high points. We're working for total tranquility, and in that you have a lot of good things. I'm certainly working toward something. There's a climax somewhere. There's gotta be a climax. It's like you go up a hill, you're happy, then you've got to go down it."
Murray first attracted notice as part of the New York avant-garde world of the late '70s. He's an original member of the long-running World Saxophone Quartet but also the leader of the David Murray Big Band, the David Murray Octet and other units featuring his name. He plays tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, and on both instruments he has an instantly identifiable sound and style.
How can somebody be so distinctive as to be recognized instantly by his fans, yet so creative as to have done a self-proclaimed 242 albums while expressing regrets for the projects he never recorded? Murray can achieve just about any idea that pops into his head, because he's done it for such a long time. The normal limitations of his instruments seem meaningless; he can play notes much higher and much lower than most other tenor saxophonists or bass clarinetists have imagined possible. He takes off into a flurry of notes, circles of sounds that relate to the melody at hand but reveal deeper, more complex layers. He's constantly expanding the rhythmic palette as well, sliding all around the basic pulse, dropping hard bombs of honking intensity to drive his explorations further. All of this is in a context of other musicians, who are usually challenged to match Murray's cosmic flights of fancy. Eventually, all are playing notes far above the original sounds, with more and more powerful rhythmic variations.
They achieve ecstasy.
Murray's music has a spiritual center that probably came from his childhood spent with his mother in church choir. "I'm that kind of person," says Murray. "I grew up in that kind of home. It's really hard to get away from. It would be hard to do something that would be devoid of any spirituality. I'd have to be a different person. It's mystical, religious, any of that. That's not to say there's always religion in everything, but to me, it's kind of mixed-up, spirituality. I guess I'm striving for something better, whether it's good karma or something else. It's something you can express in music, whether there are words or not.
"I'm the kind of musician that wants to be in the forefront of what's going on in my generation right now," Murray says, "not just in music but in terms of what people are facing, the kind of situations that we come up against in our society and our world today. I like to be like a good painter, or a good writer, who has to trumpet what comes out of my neighborhood, what comes out of society, what comes out of people. If you're not a center for what's happening in people's lives that are around you, and yourself, too, then what good are you? You're just repeating the past. You're just like somebody who notates things. I just don't want to be a chronicler. I want to be somebody who trumpets the times, someone who defines what it is at that moment."
Murray can warm up to a subject and build an idea as well in conversation as he does on his horn; often, as with his music, it's best just to sit back and turn him loose:
"Out of awful situations come great things, sometimes. Situations that are devastating can lead to great things. France got past that problem -- they were able to elevate themselves. Of course, they punished a lot of people for being collaborators. The resistance punished a lot of people. There was a civil war behind it. But at the same time, they had to weed out these feelings in their society. America has to do the same thing. I think it's happening. America is in a weeding-out process. We're a very young country, but we're in the process of having to weed out the bad in our society. I think we're doing it, you know.
"For me, as a musician, I have to be conscious of all that is happening. Presidents come and go, Democrats and Republicans, people on the left and the right -- they come and go. But the people are still here, they still have to live, and people have to get along. Right now, the main problem in America is dealing with racism and the many offshoots of racism. I think America has to come to deal with it, because the different factions in America make us what we are. America wouldn't be America without black and white, and Hispanics. And now, there are people coming from Asia who are part of America, too. We have to deal with all these people. It's a funny time for America, but we have to work through it. And us musicians, they might have to listen to us a little bit, too. They have to pay attention to their writers, not just the politicians who dictate things."
Murray's latest project, which will bring him and his octet to St. Louis for three performances at Washington University's Edison Theatre this weekend, is a collaboration with choreographer Jawole Zollar and the dance troupe Urban Bush Women. The press release bills Soul Deep as "a journey through music, dance and spoken word to the Source -- the origins, forces and impulses that shape and drive creative expression." It "is a sojourn to the historical memory of field hollers and the spiritual states of revelation called forth in gospel shouts; it is a visit to the primal passion heard in the Blues; it is a return to sensual awakening, earthy social dances, and "blue light' basement parties."
"We do a lot of different things," he says. "Some of the pieces, we actually interact with them physically. Sometimes we're included in the choreography. We have things that are set and things that are not set. There is improvisation within the dance and within the music. It's quite different from most dance performances, because we're playing live. Most dancers don't use live music. Jawole is a brave choreographer. She's willing to take risks, as I do myself. So we come together on that point, and we can take risks.
"The choreography, it breathes. It's not tight, it's not stubborn. It brings a lot of life to the music. They bring us inspiration, as we bring them inspiration. Dancers inspire musicians. They work really hard."
Murray now lives in Paris with his second wife and child, but he travels all over the world, recording and playing. "All I can say is, if I wasn't who I am, it would be hard to do this," Murray said. "I feel for some of the younger musicians who come into the music who have to make a statement. I've been able to figure out how to make a statement and sustain myself. I've got two families, so it's kind of difficult. I've got kids on both sides. For me, I have to work very hard, because I want the best for my children. But I've figured out how to do it.
"Maybe I fell through the cracks. Some people may not be as fortunate as I am, especially being able to play my own music, write my own music and play the way I want to play. I've already won. If I died tomorrow, I'd be completely happy with my memories right now. I have many more that I want to achieve, but I'm proud of what I've done."
The David Murray Octet and the Urban Bush Women perform at Washington University's Edison Theatre, Friday, Feb. 11-Sunday, Feb. 13.
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