David Murray is only 63 years old, and he has just released his most driving and distinctive recording in a couple of decades. Featuring poet Saul Williams and a rhythm section anchored by pianist Orrin Evans, Murray sounds reborn on a burst of passion and politics.
It seems like Murray has been an imposing tenor saxophonist in jazz for just about ever. In 1977, at only 22 years of age, he was founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, and by 1980 he had begun a series of recordings for Black Saint with his octet that helped to redefine the genre. He emerged as a composer and arranger of distinction and beauty, able to craft both jumping tunes and smoldering ballads, none of which could have come from anyone else’s pen.
His run of creativity was unabated for a quarter century. He helmed brilliant quartets, wrote for a big band, collaborated with Guadaloupean folk musicians, formed an organ band, and even played with the Grateful Dead. In the last decade, to some ears, he seemed to be losing his wind a bit or recycling some moves. Each new release seemed less powerful, perhaps. Be My Monster Love from 2013 featured a new band with pianist Marc Cary prominently featured—and Murray worked with singers Macy Gray and Gregory Porter. Intriguing. The formerly avant-garde saxophonist was finding a new grounding and an R&B hook?
Blues for Memo was recorded just two years later, in 2015, and it demonstrates that David Murray’s momentum has not been flagging. Recorded in Istanbul after this band had been touring Europe for three weeks, the set is a tribute to Mehmet “Memo” Ulug, one of two brothers who promoted jazz in Turkey. The quartet is rounded out by Jaribu Shahid on bass, drummer Nasheet Waits, and pianist Orrin Evans—a propulsive rhythm section. Most distinctively, however, poet Saul Williams adds spoken-word elements to all but a few songs.
Murray and Williams met in 2014 at Amiri Baraka’s funeral. Baraka, of course, was a politically outspoken and brilliant poet, and Williams is one logical heir. Williams sent Murray some work that would later be published in the collection US(a.), and the saxophonist started composing.
Williams has a long history of collaborating with musicians, having started out as a “slam poet” in the 1990s, but also flirting with hip-hop and electronic music collaborations without ever becoming a “rapper”. He had never collaborated with jazz musicians, however, seeking to avoid the poetry/jazz cliche of another era. That being said, Williams comes off on Memo as a natural jazz musician, phrasing his recitations the way Miles Davis would float his melodies across the groove. It is a straight-up thrill to hear him place his words against Waits’s swing.
“Mirror of Youth” uses a galloping 6/8 feeling, and Williams’s first verse precedes the saxophone melody. It is a quick tempo recitation, with eighth and sixteenth notes of articulation, syncopated using brief pauses that let the words fly out from those gaps. Williams isn’t singing, but there is a sensitivity to pitch and tonality in his voice nevertheless, and at times he seems harmonically in touch with the band. For his second “chorus”, Williams’s words wind around improvised saxophone for a time. “Children” is also lyrically scintillating, filled with imagery that surprises and delights: “And out of the sunscapes come little girls in dresses of fire wearing pigtails of braided smoke which stem from their moon-cratered scalps,” it begins.
Williams, more often than not, is incisive about politics or personal examination. “Citizens (The River Runs Red)” features a sung chorus that punches in coordination with Murray’s bass clarinet, then Williams examines the question of whether a matriarchal society might be an improvement. Trombonist Craig Harris improvises along with Williams as he lyrically probes. “Deep in Me” is even better, with a vocal by Pervis Evans, followed by a Williams recitation an octave lower than the vocal, set up in staccato lines with natural breaks that rat-a-tat in sync with Waits’s snare-rim-clatter. Williams and Evans come perfectly together on the words “kiss-kiss-kiss”, jolting you with how carefully thought through these arrangements are, never mere poetry slapped over the jazz haphazardly.
More political is “Red Summer” with words by the great writer Ishmael Reed ad a slow soul-gospel groove. Evans’s vocal directly describes the 2015 terrorist mass shooting in a Charleston church. Murray takes a skyscraper of a solo, reaching up high the way he did when he was young, and when Evans’s vocal and the saxophone come together on the last chorus, your soul is stirred. Similarly, Murray’s “Forever Brothers” is a gospel-infused ballad rich in feeling—a love song to a lost friend that is as ingeniously constructed as any Tin Pan Alley standard.
The other soloists on the date are nearly as good as the leader. “Enlightenment” by Sun Ra is a swinger that puts trombonist Craig Harris in the front line with Murray. Orrin Evans solos first on piano, pulling knotty phrases from the groove and keeping things tight. Harris follows Murray and uses his upper register nicely, but he’s better on the title track, “Blues for Memo”, where he stays low and plays an earthy improvisation that is gorgeously set against the lines on kanun (a stringed, Turkish instrument) from Aytac Dogan. This tune, with its slow, arpeggiated bass line, its unusual melody stated in off-kilter harmony from Murray’s bass clarinet, and layers of sound (including Jason Moran adding some Rhodes electric piano) is a highlight.
But mainly, Blues for Memo is a recording to go back to again and again because Saul Williams and David Murray are mining a sweet vein where poetry and jazz merge in a new way. Listening to “Obe”, with Williams laying down philosophy and concern about the world today and Murray and Harris demonstrating how improvisation can generate a sense of hip-hop as surely as a funk a groove, you are hearing something new. Williams is fiercely rhythmic without relying on clever rhymes like a great rapper. And I come away feeling that this music is hip-hop—or at least a form of African-American rhythmic power that uses spoken words to bring truth to the surface. Listening to the relaxed waltz groove of “Kush”, you might not think “hip-hop”, but at its half-way point, Murray’s tenor solo gives away to a stuttering hip-hop groove that J Dilla would recognize in a second. Williams eases into a short, clever set of absurd mock personal ads (“Armless conductor of styrofoam orchestra seeks brass section robot for radio broadcast of a symphony written in blood—see shark for details”) that would be merely humorous if the absurdity didn’t end with “Young n***** seeks truth”. This is followed by a breathtaking, slippery piano solo by Orrin Evans that eases the band back into modern waltz time and Murray’s reiteration of his melody.
Blues for Memo is so invigorating that it should inspire you to return to Murray’s other under-appreciated recent recordings. With a potentially long career still ahead, David Murray is trying new things, writing great melodies, and putting together bands that sound fresh and classic at once. If older jazz musicians getting into hip-hop sounds corny (even, especially?, when it’s done by the likes of Miles Davis), then be assured that this David Murray/Saul Willams collaboration is something entirely beyond cliche—either profoundly progressive hip-hop or maybe just jazz, good old jazz, jazz that happens to have a spoken word artist as soloist who is in the groove, spitting imagery and philosophy and rhythm and never feeling the need to rhyme but deeply in tune with musicians who are capable of anything they can feel. Whatever label you want for it, it is a marvel.