David Murray is a restless jazz musician who has co-founded a seminal band (the World Saxophone Quartet), made one or two of the best recordings of the 1980s (Ming and Home, both with his brilliant octet), then pursued projects as disparate as a tribute to the Grateful Dead, a tribute to John Coltrane, big band music, an organ quartet, and sets of spirituals. To take anything away from Murray, whose searching spirit and successful output once made him a dominant figure in the music, is plain disrespectful. In recent years, which have included experiments with funk music and world music, Murray has not been at the same level of invention, however.
The Devil Tried to Kill Me is the latest in a series of recordings with Murray’s brother-in-law, Klod Kiavue, and Francois Ladrezeau. They are traditional Gwo Ka drummers and singers from Guadalupe, and Murray has been combining their Caribbean groove with jazz and funk over several albums. To mixed results.
The new effort is exuberant but thin, a recording that feels aimless on repeated listens. Its best quality is, no surprise here, a sure and serious groove. If you drop the needle in the middle of “Southern Skies”, for example, you will find drummer Renzel Merrit and bassist Jaribu Shahid rocking the proceedings like refugees from a Sly Stone jam while Murray blows free and crazy, followed by a sting-nasty guitar solo from Herve Samb. And you would be more than happy to shake yourself on the dance floor to this powerful stuff. I’m not going to say that Taj Mahal’s vocal ruins the track, but what does it add? Sista Kee, a hip hop gospel vocalist (and out-jazz pianist) is on there too, splashing the keys (nice) and rapping (eh). And there is chanting from the drummers too. If you dig it, it’s a crazy jambalaya. But for all its groove, it’s a mess.
The title track, “The Devil Tried to Kill Me”, features Kee rapping words by the writer Ishmael Reed in call and response with the drummer/singers. There are references to the singer letting her home become overrun by the “electronic mess” of iPhones and Blackberries and the Internet. And then she “makes her escape”. So, this track is a Luddite rap anthem that mushes together Guadelupian drumming, avant-garde saxophone/piano, and a fairly tender trumpet solo by Rasul Siddik. Crrrr-A-zy.
Oddly enough, the collection contains two “radio edits” of the Taj Mahal songs. The one you could vaguely imagine playing on the radio (on the radio in some bizarre version of the 2010 world) is “Africa”, in which Ishmael Reed’s poem states: “Africa / If I were a hospice worker / I would enter the room where you’re layin’ / I would remove the flies from your eyes”. Lady Gaga it is not. The music itself is quite lovely, opening with a stately theme for muted trumpet and bass clarinet over a gentle groove. But Reed’s hospice metaphor seems peculiar at best. “Africa”, if I were a hospice worker, I would close your eyes.
Siddik is the finest thing on The Devil Tried to Kill Me, because every one of his statements feels balanced and drenched in personality. He has played with Murray for years, and his cool lyricism is a wonderful antidote to the lurching heat that typically characterizes Murray’s work on tenor. Murray sounds lovely in his bass clarinet features here, but it remains that most of Murray’s saxophone solos sound too much the same, at least here they do.
Early in his career, it was a boon that Murray was untethered from jazz orthodoxy. Rather than sound like a robo-Trane, he grounded his saxophone sound in Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves. He was no neo-traditionalist building his solos around complex negotiations of the chord changes, yet he seemed rooted utterly in Mingus and Ellington. His octet and big band each thrived on structure rather than pure freedom. He was great with a ballad, but he was a rebel too.
But with three decades of perspective on Murray’s playing, we can also hear that his tenor solos can be obstinately similar. They billow up from the lower end of the horn, a bit nasal, blissfully oblivious to the chord changes around them. Each one, on its own, remains an exciting proposition. But as the decades passed, it all started to seem too familiar.
Murray’s solution, perhaps, has been to frequently change the context of his playing. Jamming with the “Gwo Ka Masters” is a canny move. The roiling thrill of a Murray solo locks in nicely with the funk and the polyrhythm of this band. With Siddik as his foil, Murray plays some slick lines on “Kiama for Obama”, “Congo”, and “Canto Oneguine”. These may be the cleanest pleasures on the recording, with the two-horn front line playing pungent melodies against a percolating rhythm section. Alas, the singing comes off as a distraction from these ensemble passages, and that is what dominates half of the tracks here.
The Devil Tried to Kill Me is no disaster, but it’s a mix-and-match jumble that does not satisfy. A jack of all trades but master of none, this disc hangs around the lower rungs of David Murray’s work. Not that it isn’t fun, but it isn’t fun enough to cover for its flimsy conception.