Cut in 1976 and released the following year, Flowers For Albert, David Murray's thunderclap of a debut as a leader, left little doubt that the next heavyweight champion of the tenor had arrived. Careening with unsettling assurance between tight romantic swing and screaming, shrieking freeBen Webster one moment, Ayler the nextMurray, 21 at the time, seemed to spring forth fully formed; here, undoubtedly, was something new and, just as undoubtedly, something great. If 3D Family, a trio performance recorded two years later at the 1978 Jazz Festival Willisau in Switzerland, doesn't retain quite the same astonishing power, the fault lies in its exceeding length. Originally a two-record set, this rerelease crams 70+ minutes onto one compact disc; the shortest of its five tunes, "In Memory of Yomo Kenyatta," runs over 9 minutes; the longest, "Shout Song," clocks in at almost 24. Still, with the pulsating rhythm section of the late expatriate South African bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani and Coleman Hawkins/Cecil Taylor vet Andrew Cyrille on drums, the trio is a marvel, slipping into harmony here, exploding into dissonance there, working intently toward common ground and then splintering into what seems like a thousand ideas at once. Ultimately exhausting as the disc may be, Dyani is richly euphonious, Cyrille magnificent (his solo on the title cut is a three-and-a-half minute polyrhythmic wonder) and, above all, there's the powerhouse young Murray brilliantly staking out his territory, blustering, moaning, growling, swinging and skronking away.
Between 3D Family and Sacred Ground, recorded in 2006, lie 28 years and over 80 Murray discs; count in the World Saxophone Quartet (of which he is a founder) and appearances as a sideman and the list of recordings stretches out somewhere past 220. (Someone once asked Murray why he puts out so many albums. His deadpan reply: "I have a lot to say.") So does the world really need yet another Murray disc? In short: YES. Though Murray, at 53, may no longer be the earthshaker he once washis move to Paris a decade ago, refusal to sell out and insistence on recording for small labels, have all limited his visibilityhe is, if anything, at the height of his powers. Sacred Ground, in fact, may be as good as anything he's ever recordedwhich is to say, as good as anything ever recorded.
Sacred Ground expands on Murray's score for the 2007 Marco Williams documentary Banished, which deals with the forced expulsion of American blacks from their homesby the thousandsin the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a perfect subject for Murray, who's been as overtly political (read 'furious') as any jazz artist during his career and has never shied away from putting his finger on a sore. Enlisting a dream rhythm sectionthe indispensable Cyrille once again, the sterling bassist Ray Drummond and the fascinating young Baltimore pianist Lafayette Gilchristand tapping the talents of poet Ishmael Reed and singer Cassandra Wilson for its opening and closing tracks, the disc is scathingly angry, profoundly sad, raucously unpredictable, joyously swinging, desperately urgent and, for most of its length, utterly mesmerizing. It falters only in its last track, "The Prophet of Doom," a slow, lazy blues that's just fine, but seems more afterthought than anything else. The title opener, though, is a knockout, from the first anguished notes of Murray's unmistakable tenor, straining toward harmony, which gives way to Wilson's melancholic reading of Reed's mournful lyrics, a sparkling, typically off-center solo from Gilchrist and a subsequent Murray ascent into the ecstatic. Best, perhaps, are the sinuous "Pierce City," which finds Murray hanging in high register, bemoaning with searing confusion the Missouri town where, in 1901, a lynch mob murdered several blacks and drove the rest of their community from their homes, and "Family Reunion," a funk-inflected, barrel-house celebration of resilience. But parsing out tracks on this unified masterwork seems simply superfluous; it's a consummate artistic statement from a monumental (and monumentally under-appreciated) artist who, thankfully, still has a lot to say.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: 3D Family; Patricia; In Memory of Yomo Kenyatta; Shout Song.
Personnel: David Murray: tenor saxophone; Johnny Mbizo Dyani: double bass; Andrew Cyrille: percussion.
Tracks: Sacred Ground; Transitions; Pierce City; Banished; Believe In Love; Family Reunion; The Prophet Of Doom.
Personnel: David Murray: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Lafayette Gilchrist: piano; Ray Drummond: bass; Andrew Cyrille: drums; Cassandra Wilson: vocal (1, 7).