David Murray is one of the surviving young guns of the previous generation of musicians who were expected to revolutionize jazz. He’s now of an age and stature that the latest crop of horn-blowers are often compared to him. That’s mostly because sax players like Josh Redman and James Carter have some of the same problems as a younger Murray. Their solos are energetic and exciting, but they also seem to always go in the same direction. And like Murray when he was younger, they also seem to want to stuff absolutely everything into each and every solo, overwhelming listeners with their skill, but also with so many notes that subtle patterns and intricate swirls in the music are sometimes entirely effaced.
After almost a quarter of a century in the business, Murray has matured into one of the most respected and admired jazz musicians playing today. It’s easy to see why. On Octet Plays Trane, an album devoted to the compositions of John Coltrane, everything sounds remarkably fresh and inspired. The all-too familiar opening bars of “Giant Steps” and “Naima” are framed with an urgency and sense of purpose that give these old standards new legs. Usually, listening to someone else play Coltrane simply makes one long for the real thing. It’s seems to be unusually hard to get Coltrane right, to strike the proper balance between reverence for the original compositions and wholesale modification of them. With his characteristic intelligence and thorough knowledge of the jazz idiom, Murray has nimbly maneuvered past these twin threats to create an album of real and sustained intensity. While Octet Plays Trane is the work of a group of musicians, Murray’s reworking of Trane focuses on the solos, taking them as a key that will open the door to the inside of his compositions. Starting from the inside and working out proves to be a great strategy. In Murray’s hands, “Naima” plumbs the depths of a melancholic romanticism that even Coltrane’s somewhat brighter arrangement failed to get at. Murray’s five-horn arrangement of “Giant Steps” rocks, as does “Lazy Bird,” with solos by Murray, trombonist Craig Harris, and alto saxophonist James Spaulding. The Octet has performed on some fifteen albums now. It has rarely sounded as good as it does here, and given its superb track record, this is saying a lot.
Murray has said that when he was learning the sax, he never learned any Coltrane solos. Everyone else that he knew was trying to be Trane, and in a bid to develop a more original voice, Murray decided to follow in the steps of to different giants, such as Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. We should be thankful that he did. Coming back to Trane only after establishing his own playing voice and compositional style has allowed Murray to get at Coltrane in a compelling and original way. Octet Plays Trane is a thoroughly satisfying album. Coming hot on the heels on a number of other superb sessions that Murray has recorded for Justin Time, this album confirms his standing as one of the preeminent jazz musicians today—one who has learned the right way to work through a solo.