Sunny Murray Trio at The Vortex in London
September 1, 2009
Two nights in north London with free-jazz drum pioneer Sunny Murray's European Trio was a prospect to set the pulse racing. That expectancy was widely shared, it appeared, as there was standing room only even on the second evening. Murray first found a way to shift beyond his bebop roots to pit a shimmering rhythmic undertow against Cecil Taylor's new thing in 1959, beginning a six-year tenure with the iconoclastic pianist, immortalized on the classic trio date Live at the Cafe Montmartre (Freedom, 1963).
As drummer of choice to feed the flames of another free jazz legend, Albert Ayler, Murray also appeared on the saxophonist's debut North American disc Spiritual Unity (ESP, 1964) and a host of subsequent sides. Since those heady days, his fortunes have been more mixed, with the flow of leadership dates in the 1960s and '70s drying to a more of a trickle in recent years. Though residing in Paris from 1968, due to a lack of opportunity Stateside, the drummer, often when in the company of reed maestro Sabir Mateen, has had his more recent American visits documented by the US-based Eremite label. .
Completing the lineup tonight was English saxophonist Tony Bevan and his compatriot, the almost ubiquitous bassist John Edwards. This trio has a history going back some eight years, as Bevan recalled: "John and I first hooked up with Sunny about eight years ago, when a bloke called Paul Kelly, a sort of promoter/manager, brought him over to do some gigs in Leeds and Newcastle. I think Alan Wilkinson did the Leeds one, and I was invited to do the one in Newcastle. I got John on board because I thought it would work better as a triowhich it did. We really hit it off immediately, both musically and personally, so we decided to set up a tour. It's always great fun to play with, and to hang out with Sunnya very special bloke." That rapport, developed during subsequent tours, was captured on the acclaimed Home Cooking in the UK (Foghorn, 2004), which made several year-end "Best of" lists, and more recently on another on-location disc with Bevan's imprint The Gearbox Explodes (Foghorn, 2007), recording a gig from a short 2006 UK tour.
A lengthy Murray tattoo introduced the first set before Bevan joined on tenor saxophone with a folk-like Ayleresque refrain, launching what proved a high-energy trio. Nonetheles, Bevan extemporized melodic variations over the drum'n'bass wall of sound, avoiding the obvious blowout route at the outset. Murray played constantly during the first set, maintaining a continual, though not metronomic, thrum on his hihat. Though not keeping a fast tempo, Murray rumbled steadily, peppering his snare with rat-a-tat flurries and dropping bass drum bombs. Variations in intensity were signaled by increases in volume or density.
Fully in the zone, vision obscured by dark glasses, Murray mouthed wordlessly throughout, making him seem an almost otherworldly figure. Although it was Edwards' role to galvanize the trio with his explosive strums and frenetic arco work, Murray was definitely star of the show while Edwards and Bevan played to his strengths with fluent free-flowing jazz of the highest caliber.
Even so, Bevan hasn't quite garnered his due, despite helming his own label and appearing on a bevy of critically-favored releases. Though he came up as a free improvisor, taking part in Derek Bailey's Company weeks and subsequently recording with the guitarist on his Incus label, Bevan has also capably walked the funkier side of the street, featured on maverick drummer Steve Reid's Spirit Walk (Soul Jazz Records, 2005), so it should be no surprise that he proved so adept in the free-jazz idiom which Murray helped beget.
One of a select band of improvisors to specialize on the unwieldy bass saxophone, Bevan provoked an air of expectancy as he strapped on the harness he uses, in place of a floor stand, for his gigantic axe. He similarly made light of any technical difficulties with an unexpectedly airy tone, at least initially, before ascending rapidly into stratospheric overblowing, with Murray upping the temperature accordingly in support.
Bevan was no slouch on tenor either, alternate fingering for distorted tones, then gnawing at repeated motifs until they mutated into shrieks and cries. As he built to sustained altissimo notes, he held his saxophone up at a 90-degree angle to better project the sound. His tenor was particularly effective after one Murray solo, following it with a vocalized multiphonic drone before switching to a pure upper register wail that evoked bagpipes over the churning bass and drums. On curved soprano he was all scribbling multiphonics and piercing snake charmer squiggles. To say the least, he used the tonal variation afforded by his three horns to great effect, maintaining interest through the arc of the performance.
Just a glance at his calendar would serve notice that Edwards star is in the ascendant, having accompanied two illustrious names, reedmen John Tchicaiand Evan Parker, during the previous seven days alone: testament to his ability to meld time-keeping to extended technique, all with a prodigious energy. Here he forcefully mediated between Murray and Bevan, providing the glue which bound their dual momentum together, as well as the peaks of intensity to stoke their fires.
As a featured soloist Edwards was explosive. At one point he bowed frantically with all four strings bunched tightly in his hand, while at the same time using the handle of the bow to rub strings to extract multiple voices. Similarly, a later passage found him fiercely bowing below the bridge while strumming and tapping strings on neck. But even at his most volcanic he was still perfectly attuned to what was going on around him, as when he conjured arco whale sounds from his bass to complement Bevan's unearthly shrieks, or when he cascaded continuous glissandos with both hands for an almost vocalized moan to embellish Murray's stream-of- consciousness tap.
When Bevan and Edwards quietened some fifty minutes in, Murray still continued on remorselessly, as if playing along with some unseen band only he could hear. Antoine Prum, Director of the recent documentary on Murray, Sunny's Time Now is on record as saying: "The European trio is certainly the best thing that's happened to him in the last few years, as that group has helped him recuperate a large part of the energy that characterized his earlier performances." In fact Murray was so energized that he finished the final ten minutes of the first set unaccompanied, wreathed with sweat, to the incredulity of Bevan who, after the tumultuous applause subsided, was moved to exclaim: "Before we played, Sunny was saying to me and John to wear him out!"
Indefatigable, at the start of the second set, Murray chatted to the audience. There had been a question-and-answer session programmed between sets the previous evening, but this discourse proved more of a monologue, offering a glimpse of the drummer as a likely lad. Eventually Murray seated himself behind his kit for a laid back start, with Bevan's ecstatic tenor cries and Edwards'slow deliberate plucks making for a slow burning groove which promised to be at least the equal of the first set. Sadly, just as Bevan was harnessing up to unleash his bass sax once more, I had to leave for the last train home, with the marvelous music still echoing round Gillett Square as I departed. However, the array of mics festooned around the stage suggested that the gig was being recorded, so with luck I might yet get to hear how the second set turned out, and those unable to make any of this two-day run might be able to confirm that it was indeed Sunny's time once more.