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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.

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