David Murray at Birdland
In the mid-1990s, Murray fronted a big band every Monday night at the Knitting Factory in TriBeCa (in addition to the various quartets and octet he played with all over the city). Then he moved to Paris and experimented with African and Caribbean music, but when he comes back to New York, he usually returns to his distinctive style of jazz.
He started Wednesday night’s early set with an original, “Hong Kong Nights,” and the band unleashed that special Murray sound from the first downbeat: the reeds blowing a lush harmony, the horns a clipped counterpoint, while Murray tapped into some hidden rhythm of the universe with a Ben Webster tone, a Sonny Rollins cadence, capped occasionally by an Albert Ayler outer-orbit flurrylyrical and frenzied all at once.
The magic unfolded again, later in the set, with his arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” proving once again that Murray is one of the era’s great modern balladeers.
Otherwise, it was a mixed set: at best raucous and swinging, at times a bit ragged (which might be expected the second night of a 14-piece assemblagesome Murray stalwarts, some greenhornsthat had never played all together before). But the best outweighed the less-than-great, by a long shot.
Murray made only a handful of big band albums. The best, Big Band (recorded in 1992 for the Japanese DIW label during the brief time when Columbia distributed some of their product in the U.S.) is out of print. Close seconds, Live at Sweet Basil, Vol. 1 and Live at Sweet Basil, Vol. 2 (recorded on Black Saint in 1984), are back in print on CD. South of the Border (DIW, 1992) and Now Is Another Time (Justin Time, 2002) are of a Latin tinge and hard to find.
All of them, except the Justin Time, sound quite good too.
Many of Murray’s 100-plus albums are no longer, or not easily, available. Here’s an idea: Mosaic Records should put together a boxed set, The Complete David Murray DIW Recordings (the complete Black Saints would be too voluminous) or The Complete David Murray Big Band Recordings. I’d sign up for the first pressing.