June 2, 2000
Octet Plays Trane
Justin Time JUST 131-2
It's taken nearly 25 years, but reedist David Murray has finally got around to saluting John Coltrane. Times have also become more conservative during that same quarter century, so that this strong CD-while exciting enough-is actually a lot more mainstream than the precedent shattering work Murray did with his original octet, recorded at Sweet Basil's in the early 1980s.
You can't fault the musicianship here since everyone plays on a consistently high level. But it's disconcerting that someone who had worked out a polyphonic group music years ago in contrast to outright blowing sessions, and who expressed his alliance to the tradition by celebrating outcats instead of the usual suspects, should create something that can be slotted in with neo-con excursions. What finally saves it from this young fogey hell, though, is the originality of the arrangements. Still, it would have been nicer to have a less standard set list.
Whether consciously or not Murray-once known for his grasp of the breath of saxophone literature that encompassed Albert Ayler and Paul Gonsalves as well as Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet-honors Coltrane with music that with one exception was written before 1962. That tune, the "Acknowledgment" section of A LOVE SUPREME only advanced the Coltrane canon another couple of years and is a far cry from the stratosphere-exploring explosions of Trane's later years. Those free-blowing experiments gave birth of whole generation of younger saxists, though, including Murray.
One person still taking chances on this disc is trombonist Harris, the only holdover from Murray's Sweet Basil octet. On "Giant Steps", for instance-orchestrated for five horns-Harris stands out because he's playing gutbucket and modern at the same time, sometimes in the same solo. Later on "India", arranged for bass flute, bass clarinet and tabla drums, there's a fine solo from Spaulding-at 63, the only member of the band old enough to have played with Trane's mentors and contemporaries such as Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra and Max Roach. Spaulding also shows off his quicksilver hardbop chops on "Lazy Bird".
Meanwhile the rest of the band seems content to play generic 1961-sounding music that could as easily honor Lee Morgan as Coltrane.
As for Murray, his most impressive playing comes on self-composed Trane tribute, "The Crossing", but its also there that he sounds the least Trane-like. Using a bass clarinet, he constructs an episodic solo that relies on the sort of altissimo flights he exhibits on tenor on tunes like "Lazy Bird". Trouble is the funky riffs and unison riffing behind it sounds more like a celebration of JB (James Brown) than JC.
It's good to see Murray commit himself to a full-fledged jazz session after his less than stellar run-throughs of gospel, R&B pop-jazz, world music and even the sounds of the Grateful Dead. But while this session is inoffensive enough-and more powerful than some-there's really nothing on it that defines David Murray.
Maybe next time out the saxophonist should come up with the sort of material that would show off the talents of a living saxophonist-himself-instead of settling for the less absorbing commemoration of a giant who has passed. After his hundreds of recorded sessions Murray should be better equipped to showcase himself than settle for being a second rank idolater.
Track listing: 1. Giant Steps 2. Naima 3. The Crossing 4. India 5. Lazy Bird 6. A Love Supreme Part 1 -Acknowledgement
Personnel: Ravi Best, Rasul Siddik (trumpets); Craig Harris (trombone); James Spaulding (alto saxophone and flute); David Murray (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); D. D. Jackson (piano); Jaribu Shahid (bass); Mark Johnson (drums)