David Murray returns

David Murray has a new jazz album out. A decade or two ago, this wouldn’t be worth a shrug (though it would be worth a trip to Tower); he came out with two or three jazz albums every month. Those of us lucky to live in New York could also go see him lead his big band at the Knitting Factory every Monday night and see him play in a half-dozen other bands, as leader or sideman, at clubs all over the city. Then, in the mid-‘90s, he fell in love with a French woman, moved to Paris, broadened his musical palette (playing with Guadaloupean drummers, for instance)—all to nourishing effect, but the few times each year when he returned to New York and hooked up with a jazz quartet or octet again, it was a nearly always a spine-tingling experience (yes, a clich, but it really was).

His new album, Sacred Ground, features the “Black Saint Quartet.” Black Saint was the Italian label that recorded his classic albums—dozens of them—in the 1970s and ‘80s, so Murray clearly means to signal that this marks a reprise of that music’s spirit, and the promise is fulfilled.

Murray blows the tenor saxophone with a mix of Ben Webster’s mellifluous tone, Sonny Rollins’ fluid virtuosity, and Albert Ayler’s avant excursions—which is to say, he plays like no one else. (He also plays bass clarinet on occasion with a disciplined abandon unequalled since Eric Dolphy.) He’s a romantic revolutionary of jazz, reciting a ballad with chest-barreled lyricism, then, after the second or third refrain, taking it out to the edge of the atmosphere, diving, soaring, spinning gargantuan loop-the-loops, but never losing his grip on the rhythm of the earth and the essence of the song—its beauty, wit, and structure.

The album’s quartet includes old bandmates Andrew Cyrille on drums and Ray Drummond on bass, joined by the chord-rich Lafayette Gilchrist on piano (not quite John Hicks, RIP, but in his spirit). Two of the seven tracks sport the smoky Cassandra Wilson crooning lyrics by Ishamel Reed. The sound quality is good; nothing grating. (Justin Time, his Canadian label, seems to have hired a new crew of engineers.)

My favorite Murray albums (he’s recorded well over 100, and I have most of them) are, in no particular order: Ballads for Bass Clarinet, Morning Song, Home, Shakill’s II, Big Band Live at Sweet Basil, The Hill, Sketches of Tokyo, The Healer, and his peak work with the World Saxophone Quartet, Revue and WSQ Plays Ellington. His latest isn’t quite at that level, but it’s his best pure jazz album in a decade—and that’s high praise.