Monday, December 11, 2017

Sunny Murray - An Appreciation

A longer version of a story that I mentioned on Facebook recently....

Dateline: June 13, 1998. In Room 322 of Duquesne University's Music School - not even an auditorium, just a study room - one of the legends of free jazz drumming blew into town, along with a lesser-known but equally significant practitioner of "the new thing" on alto saxophone. The drummer was Sunny Murray, the saxophonist was Sonny Simmons.

Six years earlier, I told my brother John that, on a recent visit to a used record store, the woman behind the counter was playing an album by Albert Ayler, and it was the most annoying thing I ever heard. Because I have a memory for things from that era, I can tell you that we had this conversation at a Burning Spear concert at the Stanley Theater, waiting for the headliner to come on.

"Albert Ayler is bad, man," John told me. "What you need to do is get one of his albums, read the liner notes and really listen to it." Back then, John's word was a good as gold when it came to music. I lucked out soon after, finding a copy of Ayler's Vibrations album, which is probably the only record by the saxophonist at that time that had insightful liner notes. (They were written by future Mosaic Records founder/Grand Poobah of jazz reissues Michael Cuscuna.)

John's advice worked and the album caused a seismic wave in my thinnking, which it took me years to put into words. One of the key elements on that album was Sunny Murray's drumming, which had nothing to do with time keeping. It consisted of spastic snare cracks and cymbal splashes but it had an internal logic. A few years later, I found Murray's ESP album as a leader. It was even more anarchic (or should I say liberated from tradition) than any Ayler album where he played. As crazy as it sounded, I knew I needed it to own it.

Back then (1985), there was still a lot of mystery around this music. I listened to it as much as I could. Heck, I was more familiar with Murray's work with Ayler than I was with Elvin Jones' playing with John Coltrane. Several years would pass before I finally heard Murray with Cecil Taylor. (A friend made me a cassette of the Cafe Montmartre single album on Fantasy, which I played non-stop until it started to make sense to me.) It wasn't easy to come across a Sunny Murray album on ESP. Most of the Ayler records were being reissued on labels from other countries, but it was still on the fringe. Most people I knew didn't understand it and didn't want to give it any time. I read what little I could find about him to see what other people thought of him. His name dropped in the liner notes of Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, which proved that he was someone to take seriously.

So when it was announced that Murray was coming to town, I considered it a big deal. This guy was a legend. Played with one of the big groundbreakers.

But here he was, touring in a van with Simmons and a young guy (who was probably the driver) and playing in a student room at Duquesne. Did he jam econo like the Minutemen or was this musical injustice?

It gets better.

Two local duos opened the show - Ben Opie & John Purse, and Anne LeBaron & David Keberle. (With apologies to both, my memories of their sets are fuzzy.) After the second one finished, I was talking to the guy who put the show together, Murray approached him. He said the drum kit provided for him was not the size that he requested.  "It was the only one I could get," the guy said.

"It's not a question of what you could get, it's what you're supposed to get," Murray told him, and stormed off.

Back in Room 322, Murray started to grouse to all who would listen about the turn of events. I can't recall how long it went on, but I would guess it was 20 minutes. "If that happened to Paul Motian, he'd say, 'I'm going back to the hotel,'" he said, imitate Motian's walk. It wasn't clear at first if he was going to follow Motian's lead and split or if the show was going to happen or not. The owner of the drums set them up while Sunny ranted on. Sonny Simmons, dressed in what I recall being a brown suit, stood there, cradling his alto and looking on, not saying a word.

Over the years, a few people who were there said that Murray was an arrogant asshole. He wasn't amusing to them, and he turned the whole thing into a rant about racial injustice, which they weren't buying. If he didn't like the U.S., why didn't he just stay in Europe? He also took a snarky swipe at drummer Susie Ibarra, who had just come into prominence a year or two prior.

Aside from the cheap shot at Ibarra, I've always felt that he had every right to be pissed off that night. Just because he's touring like an indie rocker doesn't mean he should be shafted. I mean, in the hierarchy of free jazz drummers, Sunny Murray is somewhere in the Top 5. He should  have the drum kit he requested. You wouldn't pull that on Elvin Jones. Or Art Blakey. Or Tony Williams. If I was written about in such high praise, I'd be pissed too that I couldn't the gear I wanted.

Eventually, he sat down and the duo hit. The opening monologue seemed to add some extra combustion to their set, which was built on Simmons' American Jungle album that had come out within the previous year. I was finally able to see that signature drum style happen, mere feet from where I was sitting. Being able to watch Murray play, it sounded familiar but the visuals helped it all make sense. It didn't just seem like anarchy. The high-hat cymbal trembled while he was playing. It might have even fallen over once or twice.

After they were done playing, Murray immediately walked away from the kit into the adjacent student room and shut the door. I asked the young guy from the tour if he might be coming out to meet people and sign albums. He gave me an exhausted shake of the head. "Well, tell him we love him," I said. Dude seemed surprised by this statement but said he would. With that, I caught a bus home.

Sunny Murray was on my list of musicians that I hoped to meet someday. I don't know how receptive he would have been to a conversation, but it would have been worth a try. (I heard interview excerpts with him on the ESP website so he could be straight forward in conversation.) But at least I got to see him perform. And, man, did he perform.

Rest in peace, Mr. Murray. Thanks for blowing my mind.

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