When saxophonist/composer David Murray attended his twenty-year high school reunion last year, he won an award for having the most unique profession--or, as Murray puts it, "the strangest career." Given Murray's past, it couldn't have been much of a contest. After all, very few people have achieved the significance in their fields that Murray has in his.
The Murray resume is among the most impressive in jazz. He is a founding member of the acclaimed World Saxophone Quartet. He is a Grammy winner. He is an in-demand sideman. He was heralded as "Musician of the Decade (Eighties)" by the Village Voice. And he has his name above the titles of more than 150 recordings, many of which already are regarded as classics. Clearly, Murray's ground-breaking, risk-taking approach to jazz-saxophone explorations marks him as the historical link to John Coltrane. He is the saxophonic voice of the boomer generation. And yet, for all his hard work, he remains a virtual unknown outside jazz circles.
Murray says that he has made peace with this situation--but that doesn't make it any less irritating. In conversation he's as robust and vigorous as his musical ideas, but his attitude remains down-to-earth and matter-of-fact. "The thing is, I've never really given two shits about these record companies," he insists. "I get the money. I make the record. And then that's it. They never put the publicity into any of my records. Everything I've done probably for the last twenty years is based on my talent and the people that I work with. I've never gotten any big-time commercial help. I've done things from a grassroots kind of level. Now maybe it's time to do something different, but I'm not a real believer in the record-business system. I've been out there, but I've kind of been in my own world, to tell you the truth. I rarely come out. And when I do come out, something usually happens. I get mad at something and go back in."
To understand why Murray chooses this particular survival tactic, try looking for his albums. Chances are good that if you searched every specialty record shop in the United States, you'd find no more than half of his total output. Murray's latest release, Picasso, is a case in point. The recording, made with an octet that features Colorado resident Hugh Ragin on trumpet, is available in Japan and may be released in this country in late 1994. Then again, it may not. Murray doesn't know, and because he made Picasso several years ago, he doesn't much care. He's more excited about current projects. "That's the problem with record companies," he notes. "You put something out, and they don't bring it out for two or three years. It's passe by then. I've already forgotten about it. I'm on to something else. I'm doing a funk band now."
Aside from playing funk with a number of California-based musicians he's known since childhood, Murray continues to lead his octet (current members include Ragin and Rasul Siddik on trumpets, trombonist Craig Harris, drummer Tani Tabbal, pianist Dave Burrell and flutist/alto saxman James Spaulding) and remains a part of the World Saxophone Quartet. His past work is even more varied: He's led the David Murray Big Band, the David Murray Power Quartet, several quintets, a trio and his current group, the Kelly Roberty-David Murray Project. In addition, he worked with Andrew Cyrille, Don Pullen and Bill White in the combo known as Shakill's Warriors, and he's collaborated in duo ensembles with pianist Dave Burrell, bandoleon player Dino Saluzzi and percussionists Milford Graves and Kahil El Zabar. He's also joined forces with players outside the jazz world such as Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Taj Mahal.
Today Murray's home base is Brooklyn, in an area near where he first lit up the lower-Manhattan loft-music scene. The year of his emergence was 1975, when Murray was a bright-eyed, twenty-year-old kid from the West Coast who had come to New York intending to complete work and research on a college saxophone thesis. He quickly drew comparisons to Albert Ayler, in large part because his sound seemed inspired by this role model's more experimental work. But unlike Ayler, who had difficulty blending disparate jazz styles, Murray earned a reputation for his willingness to try anything, be it blues, conventional bop or techniques marked by dissonance, repetition and contrasting musical lines. All of these characteristics can be heard on the 1976 release Flowers for Albert, on which Murray paid tribute to Ayler's inspiration.
Since then, Murray has moved beyond his early motivators to develop a style all his own. His music retains its freshness because Murray has managed to emphasize growth without sacrificing technical excellence or his abundant spirituality. Because of his insistence upon constant change, Murray's had to struggle to make a living. But that doesn't mean he's through with new directions.
"People ask me what kind of music I want to do," he says. "I'm pretty much doing what I want to do now. But what I'd like is to do some collaboration with Indian music, Native American music and jazz--to me that's where it's going." After noting that his desire to move into this realm is rooted in his admiration for the late Creek saxophonist Jim Pepper, he adds, "I want to get to the essence of where people come from and try to mix different cultures of music, world music. But what you have to do in America, it seems like, is to take something from this culture and something from that culture and put some of those `slave beats' on top of it so that people like it--to make it marketable. Me, I'd rather be doing a more pure version of something--and to do that, you have to get all these grants and this and that, and it takes so much time to do. But I would like to do it in its purest form, before it gets commercial. There's all kinds of ways to make music. Everything is music. It's just a drag that the record companies have tunnel vision."
Still, Murray recognizes that going his own way has meant watching others receive the popular success he deserves. "A lot of people don't know who I am," he acknowledges. "I'm not a household word or anything. I know Kenny G. He's a good friend of mine. And everybody knows who he is--everybody in the black community. And they don't know who I am. But when I see him, he certainly knows who I am."
Express surprise that he would associate with a Muzak-meister such as the aforementioned Mr. G, and Murray will take you to task. "When you see how people are as human beings, even if you may not like the music that they do, that changes everything for me," he says. "Besides, I think it's brilliant that he made $18 million last year in his concerts. That's a feat right there in itself. You have to give the guy credit. I didn't make $18 million last year."
Fortunately, Murray is not so desperate for dough that he plans to change musical routes. But this brilliant player believes that there's still plenty he could learn from the infinitely less talented Kenny G. "I need to hook up with him and figure out all these business deals, man," he says. "That cat's got it together."
The Kelly Roberty-David Murray Project. 8 p.m. Thursday, September 22, Mt. Vernon Country Club, 24933 Club House Circle, Golden, $10 show only/$21.95 dinner package (reservations required), 758-6321 or 526-0616.
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