David Murray is a seasoned campaigner. The 67-year-old American jazz saxophonist has performed and recorded with some of the discipline’s greatest exponents, leading or contributing to over 150 releases in the process. Now he is coming back here – for the first time since 2005 – and no doubt will show us he has lost none of the fire and drive that have kept him at the forefront of the trailblazing side of the field.
Murray is one of the headliners in the current Festivalevontin which marks the 16th anniversary of popular Tel Aviv basement music venue Levontin 7. This time around the festival program is surprisingly protracted. In the past, the annual festivities took in a few days or even a week-plus of gigs. The 16th birthday celebration kicked off at the beginning of the month and runs through right up to July 23.
Anyone who has popped by the basement joint since current single owner and veteran envelope-pushing jazz saxophonist Assif Tsahar first opened the place – then in tandem with pianist Daniel Sarid and internationally acclaimed conductor-composer Ilan Volkov – will know that the club has always cast its programming net far and wide. That comes across clearly in the anniversary roster which ranges from the likes of singer-songwriters Daniel Rubin and Aviv Peck, indie guitarist-vocalist Roni Bar Hadas, Mizrahi singer Barak Cohen, French-language vocalist and saxophonist Odelly, hard-hitting funk-groove ensemble Hoodna Orchestra and activist vocalist and guitarist Yael Deckelbaum. Naturally, there’s some jazz in there too, with the festival relocating briefly from the club to the far more expansive and, it must be said, grander auditoria over at the Tel Aviv Museum, on July 21-22.
Murray: Front and center
Murray will be very much front and center, on both museum dates, leading a trio with bassist Brad Jones and drummer-percussionist Hamid Drake on July 21. All three have paid their dues on the less fettered side of the jazz tracks, with Chicagoan Drake making numerous forays to these shores over the past couple of decades or so. Murray’s slot at the Recanati Auditorium will be followed by the Heart Trio fronted by leading cutting-edge jazz bassist William Parker who will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore, with Drake putting in another shift with his longtime pals and collaborators in sonic exploration.
On the morrow, Murray will weigh in with an octet that features some of our own leading free-thinking jazz artists, such as reedmen Tsahar and Yoni Kretzmer, pianist Milton Michaeli and firebrand drummer Shahar Haziza.
Murray spent his earliest formative years in Berkeley, California where he started out considering a very different professional pathway through life. “When I was a kid I was mostly an athlete,” he recalls. Still, music also occupied the youngster’s mind, and a good slice of his day, as he began to find his way around an alto saxophone. Then one of the giants of the art form came into view and earshot, and an instrumental switch soon ensued. “I heard Sonny Rollins when I was about 11, and I switched over to tenor [saxophone] the next day.”
As Murray unfurled some of the pivotal points on his way to artistic excellence I got the impression that he kept running into formidable mentors who gave him a substantial push in the right direction. One such was Bob Barrett, a music teacher at St. Mary’s High School, in Berkeley.
Murray made such good progress under Barrett’s guidance that he subsequently gained a scholarship to Pomona College, a private liberal arts institution in Claremont just west of Los Angeles. There he encountered yet more musical guardian angels. “I could have gone to any state college I wanted but I chose Pomona because when I went there I met [now 87-year-old trumpeter] Bobby Bradford and Stanley Crouch.” Crouch was one of a slew of talented faculty members there.
At the time, he was an active jazz drummer and was later to become a celebrated music and culture critic, novelist, poet and syndicated columnist. A couple of years down the road, Crouch and Murray formed a group called Black Music Infinity, later moving to New York, to be close to where the jazz action was happening, and quickly became fixtures on the underground New York loft jazz scene.
While in the Big Apple, Murray grabbed any opportunity he could to hook up with some of the elder statesmen of the music sector and get some pointers as to how he should go about his own creative business.
Over the past close to half-century, Murray has dipped into all sorts of musical realms. Always keen to carve his own niche, unlike the majority of his contemporary tenorists, he initially eschewed the work of John Coltrane, instead taking his lead from lyrical reed players of a previous jazz generation, such as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves. Free jazz saxmen like Albert Ayler, Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp also left their imprint on Murray’s musical evolution.
But Murray predominantly developed a penchant for freer roaming creative excursions, and soon founded the World Saxophone Quartet, along with Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett. The foursome worked together for around 40 years, releasing around 20 albums, and blazed a non-mainstream trail that took in free jazz, R&B and funk.
Perhaps more than anything, Murray is known for his muscular playing style. As a bona fide senior citizen now one might have expected him to take things a little more gently, but Murray remains true to his calling. His chops, it seems, are in fine robust shape. “I am now a little more healthy than I was when I was younger,” he declares.
He has also been adept at the circular breathing technique for some years now, which not only enables him to sustain notes for longer, it also helps to keep him in good physical shape. “It is important to me to keep my power,” he explains. “Doing circular breathing actually gives you power. The saxophone becomes a place to release the power that you have inside of you.”
“Doing circular breathing actually gives you power. The saxophone becomes a place to release the power that you have inside of you.”David Murray
Even today, over half a century since he first picked up a horn, Murray is still aiming high. “I’m trying to get to the point where I can put every morsel of my energy into my sound. I’ve always been a sound guy.” That was a lesson he learned long ago. “When I first came to New York, in 1975, the first thing I understood was that you have to play loud if you want to be heard. You have to make your saxophone heard right to the back of the room and all the way back to the stage.”
Murray does not show any signs of slowing down or turning the volume down any time soon. His Festivalevontin audiences should prepare to be well and truly wowed.
For tickets and more information: https://levontin7.com/