David Murray: Black Saint

Russ Musto By

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The Black Saint Quartet is an opportunity to show another generation what made me what I have become.
David MurrayThe most widely recorded saxophonist of his generation, David Murray's brawny tenor has been heard in a dizzying array of configurations: solo recitals, piano-less trios, duets with pianists and drummers; with the World Saxophone Quartet and his own quintets, sextets and octets; fronting big bands and orchestras with string sections and Afro-Cuban percussion ensembles; in the company of poets, singers and dancers and guitarists from James Blood Ulmer to Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead; and most recently with the Gwo-ka Masters of Guadeloupe. But these days the veteran avant-gardist has settled into that most traditional of all saxophone settings, the quartet with piano, bass and drum accompaniment that has long been the forum of choice for tenorists from Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster to Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane.

Murray calls his new group the Black Saint Quartet, named after the legendary Italian record label for which he recorded some of his best work during the decade-and-a-half from 1978 to 1993. Now with his prolific output from the company's vaults available as downloads on the internet, his desire to call attention to that music serves a twofold purpose, both artistic and economic. He notes, "It's an opportunity to maybe show another generation about what made me what I have become—the kinds of songs that I've played—and an opportunity for my catalogue and my publishing to work at the same time. So yeah, this is a good group for me to be playing with at this moment. And it also gives them a springboard to do stuff like the documentary that we did for Marco Williams—a movie, Banished (2007), that was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

The powerful film documents the expulsion of thousands of Afro-American families from their homes in the Midwest and South during the period of 1890-1930, and Murray's stirring soundtrack searingly underscores the movie's emotional message. The music, which demonstrates his continued growth as an important composer, is further developed on Sacred Ground, his ninth album for Justin Time, the Canadian record label that has documented much of his groundbreaking work for the past ten years. "I went a step further and I did the album about the movie, he says. "They didn't want to deal with lyrics in the movie...but then it went a little further and I brought Cassandra [Wilson] and Ishmael [Reed] in.

David Murray / Black Saint Quartet ></a><br /><br />Murray was correct in his notion that words were just what were needed to shed light on the music's message outside of the context of the film, and Reed, with whom the saxophonist had collaborated often in the past, once again proved to be the perfect choice to complement his music with words.<br /><br />Murray sent Reed a copy of <em>Banished</em> and the film served as the inspiration for the lyrics to the title track that opens <em>Sacred Ground</em>. In his liner notes to the album Reed explains, Atlanta Journal-Constitution "bowdlerized its reporters' work when the story about the banishment of Blacks from their land first appeared.

Another Reed lyric, "The Prophet of Doom," closes the record; composed specifically for Wilson, the 68-year-old Reed describes himself being as anxious as "some zit-afflicted teenager at the prospect of having "to come up with something to match the artistry of Ms. Wilson. His telling words, recasting in traditional blues form the ancient Greek myth of the disregarded seer after whom the singer is named, admirably achieves his lofty goal.

"Everything is pretty much coming together because of this, Murray says. "We're doing some major concerts, festivals with Cassandra with the quartet. So that also brings a whole other edge to it. The saxophonist is also excited about another film. "They did a documentary on me this year on Arte, which is the French-German collaboration channel, and [it] will also be on public television...so a lot of stuff that happened this year was kind of like an opportunity for them to see me in different contexts in this movie that they're doing about my life...and everything kind of centered around this Black Saint Quartet.

Murray is justifiably proud of the group, which is arguably as good as any he's ever led. On the record the band features the all-star rhythm team of bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Andrew Cyrille, with his regular pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, for whom he has high praise. "Lafayette is growing on his own accord—he's just bringing a fresh, new kind of thing to what I'm doing, the saxophonist opines. "He kind of grew up inside of my music and so that's helpful, when you see a cat that takes your music and just studies the hell out of it...It's just beautiful to see a cat that would take so much consideration of my music that he would kind of grow inside of it himself and so I'm very pleased to have him... He's absorbed some of the techniques that John Hicks used to play, some of the things that Don Pullen used to play; he studied every pianist that played with me, so that's an opportunity right there to have...a lot of stuff going on from the past in the band, and we're trying to go forward as well.

David Murray

"Plus it's just fresh to see a young cat coming out of Monk," Murray continues. "You know there are not a lot of young cats that really study Monk these days. I mean they might play his tunes, but I mean just the way he played. So that's interesting to me to have that.

2007 appearances with the band have also featured longtime collaborator Jaribu Shahid on bass. "He's definitely my right hand guy, I can always count on him, Murray says. "He's quite a different player from Fred [Hopkins] and Ray [Drummond], you know. They don't really play the same kind of way, but I really appreciate what Jaribu is adding to the band. I mean his tempo is excellent. He just holds the band in a very nice format because we need that center sometimes in the band.

Of late, Mark Johnson, who Murray has dubbed "Rhythm Man," has been holding down the drum chair often occupied by Cyrille, Hamid Drake and Stephen McCraven. The leader proclaims, "So as long as I've got a great drummer in the band, I don't particularly care who it is; as long as they've got their own beat. You know because every drummer's got their own beat.

Murray is looking forward to returning to New York with the Black Saint Quartet for their upcoming 2008 appearance as part of the NYC Winter Jazzfest at the Knitting Factory. "I just came off of a five-week tour with the quartet, he says, "so I mean, I personally am at the top of my game right now. My chops are way up there, you know. I'm practicing and I'm hitting every night, so you can't do better than that.

A resident of Paris for the past ten years, he's happy to return to the city that was his American home base for nearly half his life, but the expat says he doesn't get homesick. "I come so often to New York that I don't really miss it. It sounds crazy, but the only thing I really miss not living in New York is watching the Yankees, Mets and Knicks and having access to the Giants. You know, other than that I pretty much come through all the time, so I don't really miss anything... The fact is that I'm touring more than I've ever toured in my life right now, so I really feel more like a citizen of the world.

Selected Discography

David Murray Black Saint Quartet,
Sacred Ground (Justin Time, 2006)

David Murray, Circles Live in Cracow (Not Two, 2003)

David Murray, Special Quartet (DIW-Columbia, 1990)

World Saxophone Quartet, Dances and Ballads (Nonesuch, 1987)

David Murray Octet, Ming (Black Saint, 1980)

David Murray, Flowers for Albert (India Navigation, 1976)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez
Bottom Photo: Eduard Markovich

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