Wednesday, 24 October 2007

David Murray's Black Saint Quartet...

Almost 20 years since I first saw Murray play live, I've just been to an inspired gig by his newly named Black Saint Quartet. The first time I saw the great saxophonist play was in Birmingham when I was a student. I hadn't even heard of Murray at the time and was still feeling my way into jazz. I liked the sound of the blurb on the poster, placing him on a par and in the direct lineage of the great saxophone masters, so I took a chance and bought a ticket. Fronting a trio with Ray Drummond and Ralph Peterson Jnr., Murray turned my head upside down and changed the way I listened to jazz forever.

Since then I've formed a fuller appreciation of Murray and seen him play in everything from trio to octet formations on many more occasions. Whilst I find that his recordings will often disappoint, I've never seen a duff live show. Once again he and the band rose to incredible heights, reminding me of the core values of jazz as a spontaneous and highly narrative form of music.

The Black Saint Quartet, consisting of Murray with pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, newly inaugurated Art Ensemble bassist Jaribu Shahid and über-drummer Hamid Drake, were known as the Power Quartet last time they visited. Their music is loose but very much of the tradition, and they're one of Murray's strongest units for many years. Almost certainly one of Drake's straighter gigs, the group shift at will through many decades of jazz evolution, though a good deal of time they're in the realms of late 'trane and early Ayler.

For tonight's performance their material ranged from classic warhorses such as 'Body & Soul' to Monk's relatively obscure 'Let's Cool One', as well as newish Murray originals including 'Transitions' and 'Banished'. The latter was a stirring meditation played on bass clarinet, and was composed by Murray for a documentary on racism in the USA. Coltrane's 'Alabama' came to mind, and the quartet impressively sustained a brooding tension and violent undertow to make it my personal highlight of the night. Interestingly, Murray spoke beforehand of how he'd shattered his bass clarinet mouthpiece at a gig in Mannheim several nights earlier. For this evening's show he was using a borrowed replacement, and with Murray's hyper-kineticism it's not hard to imagine a mouthpiece shattering under the force. During the many long periods that he spent in the 'false' upper register, I really thought that my ear drums would go the same way, something not helped by needless overkill with the PA.

This must be the first time I've seen a Murray gig where he didn't play 'Dewey's Circle' or 'Hope/Scope', something which perhaps reflects just how much this new group pushes him away from the safety of familiar repertoire. That said, his deconstruction of 'Body & Soul', played almost entirely within the changes, reminded us of his connection to Hawk and Gonsalves and left no doubts as to what a virtuoso he is.

Even with familiar material, Murray brings a unique and instantly recognisable style, but I detect that a lot of genuine reverence is being expressed too. His interpretation of Hawk's jazz monument was perhaps even more heartfelt than usual, as Murray obviously took great pleasure from the presence in the room of the legendary Jamaican-born pre-bop saxophonist Andy Hamilton. Now over 90 years old, Hamilton is a long-time friend of Murray, and he'd travelled up from Birmingham just to be at the gig.

Hamilton's presence was for me the final ingredient in an evening of pretty neat full-circles on a personal level too. I often went to hear him with his band The Blue Notes playing their regular Sunday night gigs at The Bear while I was living and studying in the Midlands. He always had an amazing array of special guests dropping by to join him for those sessions, and I recall Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Al Casey and Benny Waters as three of the most memorable. The most sobering thought in all of this to have crossed my mind was that Murray looked no older than he did when I first saw him in 1989. I doubt that he could say the same about me, but it's reassuring to know that his music is as exciting today as it ever was. If only everything in life were so reliable!!

Fred Grand.

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