Sunny Murray: Big Chief

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Sunny Murray
Big Chief
Eremite Records
2009



American jazzmen have long called Paris something of a second home, due to a perceived promise of more work and cultural acceptance. The lineage in this music can be traced to artists like reed player Sidney Bechet, who called the city home from 1949 until his death and was an early "notable" jazz expatriate. If one could say anything like an exodus occurred, it might have started sometime in the 1950s and lasted through the 1970s—Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Art Taylor, Chris Woods, Steve Lacy, Frank Wright, Bobby Few, Mal Waldron and many others relocated. The jazz avant-garde made up a disproportionate number of expats from 1968 until the 1970s, as the struggle of Black Americans was championed by young leftist Parisians in the post-Left Bank years.

Sunny Murray was part of the first wave of free players to relocate, settling in Paris in 1968 after years of little work in New York following stints with pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Albert Ayler. The late 1960s found Murray playing on numerous sessions for independent French labels both as a sideman and leading his Acoustical Swing Unit. The Swing Unit was an ensemble that he began convening in New York in 1967 for a few ill-fated recordings (one of which featured saxophonist Frank Lowe, bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, Alan Silva on high-pitched strings and a choir of young children). Upon arrival in Europe, Murray convened a multinational contingent of players including Frenchmen Francois Tusques (piano), Bernard Vitet (trumpet) and Beb Guerin (bass), and Jamaican Kenneth Terroade (tenor and flute). For 1969's Big Chief, the ensemble's core was joined by Americans Alan Silva (cello and violin) and Becky Friend (flute), South African saxophonist Ronnie Beer and poet Hart Leroy Bibbs on four originals, a rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine" and free trumpeter Jacques Coursil's "Angels and Devils" (first recorded on ESP 1032, on The Sunny Murray Quintet).

The term "swing" might not obviously apply to dense, go-for-broke collective improvisations without countable beats, but that is not the type of "swing" rhythm Murray is going for. The emphasis here is on "acoustical," the ensemble creating music at alternately very high or very low continuous audible levels into which sounds of different properties blend, ebb and flow as a single omnivalent tone. Such a tone operates on several different levels, toying with polyphony and constancy. The subtleties of relationships within this area create rhythm, and their delicate play leads to a foot-patting sensibility.

It might come as a surprise for a number of reasons that such a rare album is only being reissued on vinyl, but business decisions aside it is well programmed for the format, offering two different "moods" on each side. Originally recorded for Pathe France, the Eremite version is faithful to the look of the original (minus the flipback jacket), and pressed on 180g vinyl by RTI. Reel Recordings/Cuneiform engineer Mike King remastered and enhanced the recording, which wasn't bad to begin with but here sounds warm and full.

"Hilarious Paris" is a fine example of Murray's writing; it appears on Sunny Murray (Shandar, 1968, with a similar ensemble) and as "Hilariously" on the aforementioned ESP recording. There's a Thelonious Monkish sense of repetition, loosely bashed through but with clarion trumpet and electric violin casting the proceedings brightly. Terroade digs in his heels and blows in buzzing sqawks and peals, Tusques' right hand spiraling anthemic charges as Silva blankets with triple-stopped fiddle saws. Murray and Guerin are a powerful team, booming constant surges of density that provide a launching pad for the soloist as well as a sense of stability for collective calls. One is not primed to look for devastating solo chops here, though the players are all top-notch and play with an extraordinary amount of fire in an engaging post-Albert Ayler/post-John Coltrane milieu. Rather, the sonic waves of the whole experience take one's body and shove it—from the hum of cymbals, low pizzicato tones and roiling ivory quilt to preachy tenor honks and flywheel trumpet, all cast upwards to tremendous effect.

The second side is by comparison pastoral, if tensely so. A quintet for flute, cello and rhythm opens on a piece entitled "Angel Son." It is a vehicle for the then-romantically-involved Silva and Friend to intertwine breath and string over loose washes of cymbals, painterly arco bottom and Tusques' poised prodding. A simple and measured series of notes for flute and piano, balletic and melancholy, are the sketchy theme around which horsehairs swirl. Friend whirs, hums and yelps in flitting charges diving and singing to Silva's toothy glissandi, as close as one could get to aural lovemaking. The measured pace returns in "Straight Ahead," a ringing and minimal carpet for Bibbs' recitations. Bibbs was a jazz poet and champion of the new music who called Europe home, even appearing alongside saxophonist Dexter Gordon in the 1986 film Round Midnight. His poetic incantation, verging on ranting but raised to stateliness with droning ensemble accompaniment, also appears on side two of Murray's Shandar LP.

Closing with the theme from South Pacific is an incongruous but fitting choice—Murray had done the tune (most likely) with Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger in the early 1960s. "This Nearly Was Mine" is played straight through by the horns with a pawing vibrato that recalls New Orleans funeral marches and Albert Ayler, as Murray's bass drum thuds fireworks in the background. It's an honest, funny and priceless rendition of the tune on a set that traverses the vicious to the romantic to the whimsical.


Tracks: Angels and Devils; Hilarious Paris; Now We Know; Angel Son; Straight Ahead; This Nearly Was Mine.

Personnel: Sunny Murray: drums; Francois Tusques: piano; Beb Guerin: bass; Alan Silva: cello and violin; Bernard Vitet: trumpet; Ronnie Beer: alto saxophone; Kenneth Terroade: tenor saxophone; Becky Friend: flute (4); Hart LeRoy Bibbs: recitation (5).

Style: Free Improv/Avant-Garde


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