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Paul F. Murphy: Playing Universally

Dominic Fragman By

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Legendary drummer Paul F. Murphy has been involved with the high end of improvised music since the mid-1970s in San Francisco. He is most closely associated with the avant-garde of the '70s, '80s and '90s as a 12-year member of alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons' band and a leader of several of his own groups, including Trio Hurricane. Currently, he is working with pianist Larry Willis, performing and recording groundbreaking pieces of complete improvisation, including the duo's August release, Foundations (Murphy Records, 2009).



All About Jazz: Music is your life—you've been playing drums since you were five years-old and performing publicly since age 12. Outside of being what you do, how does music and drumming effect you? What is music to you?

Paul F. Murphy: More than any other art form, I believe music is the best tool for defining and exploring the human soul. It is the most essential mechanism available for the exploration of man's consciousness, spirituality and creation. However, it's not like other tools you can hold because music is in the air. It is the closest thing you can assimilate to the spirit. In using this tool, one finds themselves on a path that is not necessarily predictable and not necessarily self-righteous. However, if you continue down that path, you will find truth.

As far as drumming goes, I like to experience all different types. I draw from each distinct mode of playing, my own interpretation of drumming. However, I don't consider this as a defining of drumming. I consider myself an explorer of sound and the effect that sound generates through and on human emotions.

AAJ: Why is it important to you to examine the relationship of sound, the human spirit and emotions?

PFM: It is important because it causes one to look up instead of at the space they are in; to look around instead of only examining their own self-existence. I believe the process and the results allow both the artists and the listeners to touch different aspects of the human condition as well as the universe on both a physical and spiritual plane without any physical travel—similar to meditation but meditation is not felt by others.

AAJ: What do you believe you are accomplishing as this kind of explorer and catalyst for self-assessment?

PFM: Finding my own inner-self and, in a very small way, trying to find my relationship to both the physical and metaphysical universe and the creator. If you are anywhere and you look up to the sky, you see stars and patterns. It's true you can sit there and say there was a big explosion and this just happened. And, what is the likelihood that all these patterns we see in the sky, earth and nature—the patterns that keep occurring—just happened. I don't think you would see so much repetition of patterns—patterns that are models of structure, growth and directions. And, from looking at the little that man has built on this planet, it seems as though something greater has built this universe—which I don't think anybody is arguing against because the patterns repeat throughout everything we can see from within ourselves and without ourselves and as far as we can see with man\-made tools of magnification.

So, I would like to try to assimilate some strand of connection for why I am here on this planet. And, has anything I've done on this planet helped to change how anyone thinks about anything? With that, there are going to be positive and negative speculations and critiques. Just like protons and electrons in an atom; the most basic structure of the universe. Through my drumming, I hope that some may see my most positive thoughts about mankind's existence. That is what I try to express in my playing. That is why I don't set up structures or parameters when I play. Not doing so allows for the exploration of any structure, which leads to the discovery of new directions within my own way of thinking—my own thought patterns. I am literally trying to interact and play in the most spontaneous setting available while creating music that a child or an intellectual will enjoy and understand.

AAJ: You've said before that the best way for tapping into this type of exploration and discovery process and for harnessing the ability to make meaningful statements in your playing is through intense practice and soloing. You start to discover things about your playing and about yourself. You find, not only methods of deep expression, but significant expression while soloing without set parameters and blocked patterns. I feel like this type of practice has absolutely unlocked a lot more of this thought process for me. It's led me to a higher ability of expression and, hopefully, a greater understanding of playing and thinking altogether.

PFM: Right. And you wouldn't have been able—and weren't able—to do that by only thinking about it from your point of view. You had to learn how to tap into a bigger picture. You also had to learn how to get outside of whatever box there is around the common mode of thought and playing that was projected onto you as a student before.

AAJ: Absolutely. Getting outside of the box was the biggest thing playing-wise: finding a way to conceptualize playing differently and hopefully uniquely; creating instead of reproducing; playing something as opposed to just playing the drums. And, in order to do that, finding a way to connect playing to something other than playing ...

PFM: Finding a way to draw the connection to the universe and the human spirit and condition.

From left: Paul Murphy, Larry Willis

AAJ: What has helped you understand the universe and the soul to allow you to connect your playing with these things?

PFM: I would say my love of drumming has always outweighed my lust for financial gain and that has allowed me to keep my mind open and clear and sustain a pursuit of knowledge and skill. I have also found that family has become more and more important and influential. I decided long ago that I was going to be far better off studying, playing and recording what I believed in instead of living in a situation where I would have probably ended up dead.

AAJ:Did this decision allow you to pursue and study music and drumming to a higher level?

PFM: My current job as associate director of Georgetown University facility management and operations allows me to live a stable life in an environment surrounded by the study of humanities and technology. It allows me to be as free-thinking and playing as I need to be—or want to be. I still practice every day. I still play and record the best of my musical endeavors with my best friend, Lawrence Elliot Willis. And, I teach extremely selectively.

AAJ: The ability to be free and forward thinking is very important. It seems as if that mindset is basically required in order to be a part of—or even conceptualize—the kinds of things you are talking about. And that mindset is always a part of the path to innovation. Being considered a pioneer in music and drumming, what qualities do you believe are necessary to be an innovator?

PFM: An innovator has to do at least one of two things: you can either advance concept or you can advance style. You have to change or move one or both of these things in a new direction. And it takes belief. You have to believe in what you are doing, you have to be determined to do it. Motivation, determination and continuous pursuit are a huge part of success as an innovator and success in general, but success does not necessarily equal innovation. Success often defines commercialism—not all the time—but in order to be new, you have to think new. You have to think and be outside of the box.

I believe, too, that technique is the mother of invention. Technique and the study of techniques are what lead to innovation. It doesn't just happen. You need to have an understanding of all the world's music and what makes them different and the same. In order to advance style, you must have a good functional knowledge about past and current styles and in order to advance concept you must understand past and current conceptual movements.

AAJ: "Technique is the mother of invention." Clear examples of this are players like Jimmy Lyons, John Coltrane, Dewey Johnson, Walter Davis Jr., John Tchicai, Jaki Byard and Clifford Jordan, all of whom you have played and/or recorded with and all of whom are viewed as innovative players who changed and/or contributed to the progress of jazz. Each of these players had/has a serious command of their instrument. Can you talk about the process of developing your technique to get to that kind of level?

PFM: Well, I studied for 11 years with Joseph Levitt, who was at that time, the principle percussionist of the National Symphony and director of the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Throughout the years, during my study with Levitt, I was introduced to Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones...

AAJ: Not only met but played or studied with.

PFM: Right. I also spent a lot of time playing all different forms of music from symphonic to orchestral to marching to R&B and rock and roll. At the age of 17, I was introduced to bassist Billy Taylor, from Ellington's band who was instrumental at a very important time in my development as a player and the direction I would end up taking in music.

AAJ: What happened in the development of your technique "beyond?"

PFM: Sitting in a parking lot outside the Blair Mansion Inn, where I was playing a society gig with Billy [Taylor] and pianist John Phillips, while sitting in Billy's 1965 Ford LTD, Billy stuck in an 8-track cartridge and asked me, "Do you know who these cats are?" We listened for about 25 minutes. I said no, he told me, "This is Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray. These are the cats you need to know. This is what you play."

AAJ: What put you as "one of those cats?"

PFM: My concept of playing time; the way I moved time.

AAJ: What was that concept?

PFM: I was able to give the feel and swing of bop without continuously using the 4/4 typical-designed ride cymbal, hi-hat, bass and snare patterns. I was able to create the same feel while shaping the space to my needs and patterns. It's weird; I'd been playing with that cat for like a year and a half. He never went, "Man, you can't play bop." He just said these are the cats you need to meet. They do what you do. He also told me, at that time, I was not ready for New York City. He said I needed to play on the West Coast. So I did, I moved to San Francisco.



AAJ: When or how did you begin developing that playing style?

PFM: It was something that I came upon or into while continuously playing with guitarist David Davenport. He was a very gifted and forward-thinking guitarist who's playing was a cross between Pat Martino and Frank Zappa. I mean, Dave and I would do this thing where we would say we are going to play 64 measures at a slow tempo and stop on beat one of the 65th measure. There came a time where we were both stopping on one while playing totally free—while knowing where the original time was. We started off by going 12 measures. Then, when we got that, we tacked on another 12, then another and kept going.

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