With the music of country music legends Merle Haggard
and Bob Wills as a starting point, tenor saxophonist Bryan Murray and his band have been creating fresh, iconoclastic, and somewhat noisy modern jazz for a few years. The Haggards' second CD, Still Alive And Kickin' Down The Walls
, picks up where their stunning debut, Pretend It's the End of the World
(Hot Cup, 2010), left off. Murray and his band are clearly having a lot of fun with Haggard's music. Some of the tunes have an inherent "Yakkety Sax" goofiness that Murray and his chief co- conspirator, the highly irreverent saxophone phenom Jon Irabagon
, are only too happy to play up. Still Alive And Kickin' Down The Walls
hews closer to the source material than its predecessor; largely gone are the whiplash- inducing, John Zorn
-like tempo shifts and excursions into free improvisation.
Here, Murray and Irabagon focus more intently on Haggard's melodies, and seem to capture the emotional content of the lyrics. One obvious precedent for this aspect of the band's musicality is saxophonist Albert Ayler
's recordings of church hymns and spirituals. Concentrating mostly on Haggard's early- to mid-1960s output, Murray and his quintet generally hew to the tunes' original musical intent. "Ramblin' Fever" is a hard-rockin' stomp, played loud and proud, with angular saxophone squawking and Jon Lundbom
's splendidly dirty guitar work. The band takes an equally gritty approach on "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star," a sweaty, hard- working blues that was a huge hit for the Hag in the late 1980s. A Texas Swing feel pervades "Mixed Up Mess Of A Heart," where the saxophonists' absolutely nutty soloing contrasts with the ultra-buttoned-down work of bassist Moppa Elliott
and drummer Danny Fischer
. Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose" goes a step further, with the requisite vocal yelps and a crazy Slam Stewart
-inspired scat-and-bass solo.
The quintet digs into a couple of Haggard's ballads and drinking songs. The bathetic "Turnin' Off A Memory" starts with a brief spoken intro and has some impressively unhinged soloing from Murray and Irabagon. "Sing a Sad Song" gets a gentler treatment, with Murray's sweet, fluttering tenor sounding a little like Charles Lloyd
. "If We Make It Through December" starts out just as sweetly, only to decay into a drunken stumble, as the saxophonists play bizarre variations on the melody while manically switching between various saxophones, clarinet, piccolo, and whistles in a theatrical evocation of a weary band playing the last tune of the night to a near- empty room populated by a few drunkssomething that Haggard himself probably experienced a few times.
Turning country music on its head to reveal a previously unheard avant-jazz underbelly, Still Alive And Kickin' Down The Walls
combines Haggard's songs and Bryan and the Haggards' unceasing rumbustious improvisational energy, making for one of 2011's more engaging jazz recordings.
Ramblin' Fever; Seeing Eye Dog; Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star; Sing a Sad Song; Mixed Up Mess of Heart; Turnin' Off a Memory; San Antonio Rose; If We Make It Through December.
Bryan Murray: tenor and balto! saxophones, vocals (7), tin whistle (8); Jon Irabagon: c melody, alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet, picolo, penny whistle; Jon Lundbom: guitar, banjo; Matthew "Moppa" Elliot: bass; Danny Fischer: drums.