David Murray Is Back in Town

When David Murray decamped to Paris 20 years ago, the New York jazz scene lost its most distinctive voice: a tenor saxophonist who fused the hefty romance of Ben Webster, the improvisational zest of Sonny Rollins, and the avant skybursts of Albert Ayler. Now he's back, living in Harlem, playing at Manhattan's Village Vanguard (this week, through Sunday) with new and old bandmates, and sounding as lush, adventurous, and shiversome as ever.

In the 1980s through mid-'90s, Murray was omnipresent: leading a big band at the Knitting Factory every Monday night; heading ensembles of various sorts (trios, quartets, quintets, and octets) at clubs throughout the city; playing a vital role in the World Saxophone Quartet, arguably the decade's greatest jazz group; and releasing, so it seemed, an album every month, mainly on the Black Saint and DIW labels.

Then he left, not only America but also, for the most part, jazz, broadening his scope and experimenting with troupes of Guadeloupean drummers, Cuban brass, among others, to varying effect. He journeyed to the States once a year or so, returning to form but rarely capturing the magic of old.

The two albums he recorded last year—Cherry-Sakura (Intakt), featuring duets with pianist Aki Takase, and Perfection (Motema Music), a "power trio" session with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington—were his best in at least a decade. Seething with fire, grace, virtuosity, and blues, they may, in retrospect, have augured a comeback, in every sense.

And now here he is, at age 62, ready to restore his place on the scene. The set that I saw at the Vanguard on Wednesday—blazing, gorgeous sheets and shimmers of sound—bodes well. He played some tunes from his old songbook, pieces from a new suite dedicated to the great critic Albert Murray (no relation), and some standards, notably Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," which he has played on a few albums but never so spine-tinglingly as here; in fact, it's one of the most straight-up beautiful versions of the song I've heard anywhere. Besides everything else, Murray might rank as the greatest balladeer still standing.

His band for the Vanguard dates includes the pianist D.D. Jackson, a former Murray sideman who's also been missing on the scene for a couple of decades. I asked him after the set where he's been. Turns out he's been composing music for children's television, for which he's won some Emmy Awards and, presumably, some decent paychecks—necessities since he's been married and had a couple of kids (which was not his situation when I last saw him). Meanwhile, he's lost none of his brilliance, whether mad-dashing across the keyboard (he was an acolyte of Don Pullen, whose legacy he embodies with fine flair), comping with deep lyricism, or . . . well, anything the occasion demands. I hope Murray's return means Jackson's as well.

On bass and drums, respectively, are Rashaan and Russell Carter, brothers from D.C. I hadn't heard of them before but look forward to knowing them better. Let's just say they have everything a strong, risk-taking leader wants in a rhythm section. Finally, Mingus Murray, David's son, plays electric guitar, stirring a funky spice into the mix and also adept at sweet chord-strumming when that's the ticket.

This weekend, the band turns into an octet, augmented by Craig Harris on trombone, Hugh Ragin on trumpet, and T.K. Blue on alto sax—all Murray sidemen from decades past. It will be interesting to see if Murray teams up with some of the jazz stars who have emerged or matured since his departure—say, Jason Moran, Aaron Diehl, Dave Douglas, Ravi Coltrane, or Linda Oh. Either way, New York jazz just got a little tastier.