Monday, January 11, 2010

CD Review: David Murray & the Gwo Ka Masters - The Devil Tried Kill Me

David Murray & the Gwo Ka Masters
The Devil Tried to Kill Me
(Justin Time)

It's probably been about 15 years since I've seen David Murray live, but the two or three quartet and the three World Saxophone Quartet shows that I saw left a distinct impression on me. The first time I saw the tenor saxophonist in a quartet (which included Dave Burrell) around 1986, I came up with a metaphor for improvising that seemed so obvious, I'm surprised no one else has used it. A solo during one particular tune reminded me of a model of DNA - you know, the model that's like a ladder or a spiral, twisting and turning upward in a never ending pattern. Murray was playing a fairly straight ahead tune, and with each chorus he pulled away from the changes until finally he was unleashing a swell of sounds that had honks and squeaks in it - like the upper notes of the chords if you followed them all the way up, past the 11th, the 15th, etc. He was still tethered to the basis of the song, he was higher than the ground layer of the model - the DNA model.

Maybe that concept is a little more abstract that it seems to me, but I once mentioned it to a local guitarist and got it completely, even imagining how to tell a soloist who wasn't cutting it to "use the DNA model, c'mon."

To borrow another metaphor, Murray was really lifting the bandstand that night.

The Devil Tried to Kill Me, the second album Murray has made with the Gwo Ka Masters (after 2004's Gwotet), the DNA model doesn't reemerge, but the depth of Murray's solo gifts are in evidence. The combination of his full-throttle tenor and a group that includes several natives of Guadeloupe is far from world beat. Anything stamped with that categorization seems to sanitize all the vital elements of the original music by fusing it together in a more homogenized package. This album has too much fire brewing beneath it to be considered smooth.

Blues singer Taj Mahal appears on two songs, singing lyrics by poet Ishmael Reed. "Africa" is especially convincing, with Mahal addressing the country, imagining himself as a hospice worker and the country as a patient, and the things he would do to help it ("I would remove the flies from your eyes/ I would sit with you day and night." ) The message of the lyrics (reprinted in the CD booklet) hits hard as words on the page, let alone when delivered by the veteran's serious growl.

Sista Kee (who also plays piano on the session) and Mahal trade vocals on "Southern Skies," using the words of writers Grace Rutledge and Kito Gamble respectively over the band's propulsive funk. Kee's solo vocal on the title track, again with the words of Reed, falls somewhere between straight up singing, spoken word and rap in a blend that leaves plenty of blowing room for Murray.

With one trap kit and two Ka drummers, in addition to trumpet and a couple guitars, the band has a lot of promise. Murray spouts his usual wealth of feeling and ideas. His bass clarinet serves as a perfect compliment to the setting of "Africa" and to Mahal's delivery. Trumpeter Rasul Siddik responds in kind, especially on the title track.

But when the two horns finish their solos, the energy dissipates on several tracks. A lot of this comes from the production. With that many drums interweaving, you should be able to hear the sounds of hands on skin during "Canto Oneguine." Instead, the drums sit in the background during that track. Aside from "The Devil Tried to Kill Me" where the drums get more of a push, perhaps to accentuate the lyrics, the rhythm section has a compressed smooth sheen that also makes the bass sound polite instead of gritty.

The combination of group vocals and electric instruments reminds me of the excitement of the one Osibisa album I've heard (Heads for anyone who's wondering). Combining that with one of the United States' strongest tenor players should be a can't-miss situation. The album still has plenty of fine moments, but the production makes it feel like there was a particular level of energy in the studio that was edged out of the final mix.

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