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Murray Brothers: A Law Unto Themselves

Courtesy Murray Brothers

Ian Patterson BY

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They are two of the most promising jazz musicians to have emerged from Ireland in some years. Bassist Conor Murray and twin brother Micheal Murray (alto saxophone) grew up with Irish traditional music in the small, Gaeltacht—Gaelic-speaking—town of Falcarragh, in County Donegal. Both discovered jazz in their early teens and have been regulars at the annual Sligo Jazz Project, first as students and latterly as instructors.

Graduates of the jazz program at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, under the guidance of Tommy Smith, the Murrays have embraced the jazz world in all its facets. While students in Glasgow they promoted such high-profile gigs as Kurt Rosenwinkel and Michael Janisch. Emboldened by these successes, 2018 saw the Murray brothers launch the Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival in their hometown.

They have toured extensively throughout Ireland, the UK, mainland Europe, Russia and North Africa, most frequently with drummer and mentor David Lyttle. Other notable collaborations include those with Jason Rebello, Lucian Gray and Michael Kanan. All of this by the age of twenty-four.

The Covid-19 pandemic put the brakes on the Murray's busy gigging schedule, but it could not stop their creativity. The extended pause afforded the brothers the opportunity to consider more profoundly their approaches to improvisation and composition. The result is Murrays Law, (Lyte Records, 2021) their impressive debut recording of all original material.

All About Jazz: Congratulations on your really fine debut album, Murrays Law. Does it feel like the culmination of one period in your careers and the beginning of a new phase?

Conor Murray: I think that's a really good way to put it. We've always thought about releasing a CD. It's kind of what you want to do as a musician. You look at your hero musicians and you see they did a CD when they were twenty-one, twenty-two, but then there's always that feeling that you want to wait to be sure enough about yourself as a player so that it's the right time to release an album.

Micheal Murray: It's quite a special thing to have it out. In a strange way, we were able to get the time to reflect a lot about our music, about our general ideas on approaching improvisation and composition.

AAJ: So, is it fair to say that there has been an upside to the pandemic in that it has given you the extra time necessary to create this music and realize an album?

MM: It's very true because all the compositions that we did for this album were written during this strange period of time.

CM: Even over the last year before Covid we felt like it was maybe becoming a bit more of a real thing to do an album and then we were just lucky to land on our feet with the grant.

AAJ: Who provided you with the grant?

MM: We received the grant through First Music Contact and The Department of Tourism, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports and Media and their music stimulus package 2020. The grant provided us with a really big opportunity, and it helped us to start recording the album. It feels great to have marked this time in a positive way with such a major creative outlet.

AAJ: How did you approach writing the music?

CM: It is a culmination of this time because the music was done in a really focused way. We were writing music separately and then coming together and playing things and talking about the music. Then we'd go back and adjust things. It's a funny thing when you collaborate, even us as brothers. You can have such a different direction in your music initially, but then you think we want the album to sound coherent, so how can we come together to find a vision on it?

What is great about it is that it has inspired me to go on and develop my compositions further. Now I have ideas for projects I want to do in the future and those are things to work towards. There is a lot of stuff with composing that I want to get better at.

AAJ: Micheal, would you like to add anything to that, with regards to the writing of the music?

MM: I think I share all the sentiments that Conor said there. When we decided to do the album, we agreed that we would each write half of the music. There is always a filtering out process because there are differences in the way we write music. We both started to adjust and open up our styles of writing in different ways to create a sound for the album and that was a really interesting collaborative process.

AAJ: The album is coming from the jazz tradition, swing and bebop, but it sounds really fresh and original, no doubt because it is all original material. Did you consider doing any jazz standards, which you are both deeply rooted in, or was it a conscious decision to present your own music?

MM: That's a really interesting question. There was a point where we relaized that it was going to be all original music, but I don't feel as if we ever had any major discussions as to whether this was going to be an album of all original music or whether we should include a standard. There was no debate. There was no active decision to have a standard, I suppose we just both got so into the compositional process that that's just the way it ended up. But we're glad that it did end up like that.

CM: We play so many standards gigs, and we love playing the standards, but we never feel that we needed to put a standard on to show people that we are into the jazz tradition. We know that that's part of our thing and who we are. You don't need to necessarily show it all the time.

AAJ: It's so rooted in your playing, which is absolutely great on this album. Micheal, your improvisations are just gorgeous. I mean this as a compliment when I say they sound like they could go on forever. Is Lee Konitz someone that you have listened to a lot?

MM: For a really long time, especially when I was younger, and in college as well, I went through a big phase of those kind of players, and I would definitely say that Lee Konitz was really big in terms of all the early DNA. I love a lot of his stuff with Warne Marsh but also, I remember his album Motion [Verve, 1961]—a chordless trio album—was one of the big albums I really loved to listen to over and over. For sure, he's important.

AAJ: The Konitz comparison was more about your approach to improvisation than the sound. Another great alto saxophonist, who you have studied with, is Jaleel Shaw, who of course was part of Roy Haynes latter day groups; what was the experience like of studying with him?

MM: First of all, to study with someone who is that deep into the music...it's his approach to everything—the harmony and rhythm. I think the rhythm especially in his phrasing really struck me when I listened to him. It's also what we talked about, the control of rhtyhm in phrasing. It was really a kind of "woah" moment. It's his depth of knowledge about the tradition but also the organic way he comes out of it where he's on the cutting edge of the contemporary alto scene. To hear him talk about it, or just to listen to him play transcriptions, where he's so focused on the detail and all the nuances. It was astounding. And I think his dedication and focus—that was another main thing. It was a beautiful experience.

AAJ: Conor, your playing on this album is really beautiful as well. I kept thinking of Dave Holland. Who are your main influences on the bass?

CM: I love Dave Holland, for sure. I've checked his playing out on a lot of records. The main that have influenced me, the first that come to mind, would be Paul Chambers. He's one of the guys I listen to the most. I just love his playing, his sound and his approach. Then another player is Israel Crosby. It's funny, because I took some lessons with this amazing bassist Ben Wolfe a while ago and the first transcriptions I did with him was Israel Crosby "But Not for Me" from the album Live at the Pershing. That album Live at the Pershing by Ahmad Jamal was the first ever jazz CD that I bought. I have a really strong association with it, so it was really funny to be doing that as my first transcription.

In recent years I've been checking out Doug Watkins and I love Jimmy Garrison and Ron Carter as well. I guess the main thing I have been focusing on developing is walking bass and developing a clear, strong sound and time. So, I've been really invested in listening to all these guys because they are some of the best at it. At different stages they have influenced how I think about the instrument.

AAJ: Thank you for that. Yes, that Ahmad Jamal trio with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier was simply magic. Conor, your brother has talked about learning with Jaleel Shaw, but I know that you toured Ireland—was it 2019?—with the American pianist Michael Kanan; what can you learn from being on the road with someone like that, playing a bunch of gigs, that maybe you can't learn so easily in a classroom setting?

CM: That tour was 2020, right after Brilliant Corners [Belfast's jazz festival, held in March-Ed]. We got a couple of gigs into it but then it was cancelled because of coronavirus. But I can still speak to what it was like to play with someone like that.

I met Michael a year before when I was in Scotland. A friend had organized some gigs for Michael and he was able to come over. I came to one of the gigs that he was doing. It was a duo for bass and piano. When I went in at first I was nervous because I thought, this guy, he's such a heavy musician, but he was just one of the loveliest guys I've ever met. He has such a sweet personality and there's a warmth about him. That immediately put me at ease.

Then I was lucky enough to sit in and play a couple of tunes with him. I remember on the first tune I had this moment where I realized that everything you play just needs to be so clear. Stuff that I was playing just didn't work and I understood in that moment that my playing needs to have more clarity. It was more about the detail in the way Michael was playing. It's a hard thing to describe but I just remember that it was such a huge moment for me. This is how the music sounds in the hands of a high-level master.

I need to have that detail in my playing—that is part of the mastery of the music. I walked away from that experience with something kind of different awakened that I think I probably wouldn't have got in a classroom situation, as amazing as all that kind of learning is. And because I wasn't expecting it, it kind of threw me off —you're learning this stuff in the moment.

A while after that I asked him if he would come over and do a tour in Ireland and he was more than happy to. The gigs that we did in Ireland were just amazing. Again, it was that thing of playing with clarity. You can never play with enough clarity. When you listen to the really great players everything is just so clear.

AAJ: That's a great answer. In fact, the last track on your album is called "Clarity" and one of the things that jumps out listening to Murrays Law is how much the music really breathes. There is tremendous use of space and just the sort of clarity in the paying that you've been describing.

Conor, you talked about great players and of course you're playing with a great player in drummer David Lyttle. Micheal, I'll ask you this one: how has your musical rapport delveloped with David Lyttle since he joined your trio in 2018?

MM: We did our first really big tour back in June 2019. It was great because it was our first experience essentially coming out of college. We came back to Ireland and did a 27-date tour of Ireland with that trio. But just to add to what Conor said, there are things that you learn from the experience of just playing every night and working on the music every night. A lot of the time we were recording the concerts and listening back to certain things. It was a big learning curve in some ways, and a very new experience for us, but it really proved to be an amazing point of growth for both of us as musicians.

Playing with this trio has been a special thing to us and we both feel really grateful to be playing with David. Firstly, when you're playing with a musician who's playing at such a high level and playing with some of the best in the world, then you want to strive for that level. It makes you focus really hard on what are the major things that you need to get together. It was the same thing working on the album. You want to be improving every time that you play.

Particularly in this group, we've both learned so much about interaction. We consider this to be quite an interactive group and that has something to do with space. It has made me personally think a lot about phrasing and clarity, not to overuse the word, and giving the music the room to breathe and everyone the space to interact. We're trying to create something dynamic and cohesive where everyone is playing together as a unit.

AAJ: That comes across really strongly on the album. Where does the title of the album come from?

CM: With David we have this running joke where everything that can work out at the last minute will work out at the last minute. When we were doing live streaming concerts, and we were setting everything up ourselves, we always seemed to run into these issues but at the last minute we always managed to get things working. It's kind of a play on Murphy's Law.

AAJ: It has a good ring to it. You also made videos to go with two of the tracks on the album, can you talk about this why you decided to do these videos and how?

MM: Yeah sure. As we talked about this in our last interview, how we've taken a lot of inspiration from this environment, this area that we have grown up in. With the album we decided we wanted to do some visuals to accompany some of the tracks. The simplest and strongest idea was to showcase the environment, to pay a sort of tribute to the area we grew up in. It's such a beautiful part of Ireland, of the world...

AAJ: Absolutely. No kidding.

MM: We thought it would be a great thing to reflect in the music because this area is part of our DNA. It's what we've been inspired by and affected by.

AAJ: The landscapes in the videos work very well with the music and vice versa. "I Want to Believe" has a very hypnotic, meditative quality and ties in very well with the Donegal landscape. Is the promotional side of your careers something that you see as being very important?

MM: Promotional stuff is a separate thing. It doesn't affect the music. At the same time, we are aware of this side of things. It's something we think about when we need to think about it.

CM:: It's important for us getting gigs together and it's important to have promotional stuff together, something that will allow a venue to say, yeah, we should book these guys. That's an important side of it but I have certainly never thought when I'm composing about the audience will like, you know? But when it comes to the promotional side, we are able to do that and sell ourselves, in a way, to the venues.

AAJ: The album sounds great from a purely technical point of view. Where and when did you record the music?

MM: We recorded it with David [Lyttle] at his place in Waringstown. He has his own recording studio. To have someone of his experience as a producer, with all his knowledge and expertise was a huge thing.

CM: Yeah. The mic placement, proper sound testing. Everything was really good. We wanted to get the sound as close as possible to the live sound, the way we know our instruments sound and there's where having someone like David was really invaluable. It allowed us to focus purely on the music.

AAJ: Is Murrays Law available on the usual streaming platforms?

CM: At this time, we have consciously chosen not to put the album up on Spotify or the free streaming platforms. We both feel that those kinds of platforms are negative for musicians because there's an unfair balance with them. If people want to support us and our album there's a Bandcamp page where they can pick up the album.

MM: This whole pandemic lockdown period has been an interesting time for the revelations that we've seen, how these corporations have divvied up the royalties from streaming. Musicians have known this for a long time, and it is really self-evident, but especially during this time when for a lot of people their income has been completely cut. You realize how unfair it is towards musicians.

AAJ: Well, we hope that Bandcamp is a successful platform for Murrays Law and we wish you lots of success with that. What lies ahead of you on the horizon?

MM: In normal times you would release and album and then go on tour, so it was a strange experience not being able to tour. But we are looking at doing an Irish tour with the album in October.

CM: Fingers crossed that it will go ahead. We're really hopeful that we'll be able to play some gigs and play the music. The gigs and the tours are invaluable for being able to put out your music and I think that's always going to be very important, no matter how we go forward with the internet.

MM: It's hard to know where the international stuff is going to go with all the travel restrictions but we're keeping an eye on that. When Covid happened, we had quite a lot of international dates with David already booked so we're in touch with all those people to see when it's safe to travel. We would hope to be doing that kind of stuff in 2022.

AAJ: Has the absence of gigs due to the pandemic given you a different perspective on what it is that you do for a living, that's to say, playing music to people?

CM: Especially when we were doing the live streaming we realized, and it's something we all talked about, that even though there were people tuning in and listening you're playing for people over a screen. The energy isn't there. Sometimes it can feel like we're the product and the audience is the consumer. But it's not as simple as that at a gig where the audience is providing this energy and this purpose for the music. It drives you on and helps you want to play your best, which brings an extra dimension. You realize how important it is to play for people.

MM: I've been thinking about the emotional depth that master musicians have in reaching people. How can you tap into the emotion of the music and also be open to expressing those sorts of things for the audience? I think there's like a maturity has come with this time with that kind of reflection.

There is this connection that you need to have with the audience, and I think that's one of the first and foremost things about the music. Also, the appreciation of just being in the moment of a concert and enjoy being there with an audience. To connect. That's a very special thing.

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