In his liner notes to Miles Davis’ post-Bitches Brew recording At Fillmore: Live At the Fillmore East, Morgan Ames quotes J.J. Johnson on Miles’ new direction. “If you put Miles and his new group in the studio and recorded them on spearate mikes, and then you cut the band track and just played the trumpet track, you know what you’d have? The same old Miles. What’s new is his frame of reference. ”
Musicians reinvent themselves not so much by changing their personal style but by putting themselves in new contexts. David Murray, a prodigious recorder has done that times over since the mid-1970s. Whether in small groups or large, the World Saxophone Quartet, avant-garde or ballad programs, Murray’s voice, a unique blend of swing, bop and free expression, is instantly recognizable.
His best playing, certainly currently (and it’s all great), can be heard on his Afro-Caribbean projects. Murray’s connection to the French possession, Lesser Antilles island Guadeloupe, heard on 1998’s Creole, and 2004’s Gwotet, has given him new life. His brother-in-law, Klod Kiavue and a group of Guadeloupe Creole musicians known as the Gwo Ka Masters contribute to this Africa-America connection. To make The Devil Tried To Kill Me an overarching fusion hybrid, Murray brings in Californian funk drummer Renzel Merrit. To make it a fusion of arts as well as styles he integrates the poetry of Ishmael Reed and brings in folk-blues interpreter Taj Mahal to sing them.
Despite all this stirring –and the Rabbit, no stranger to stews, promises to use no more food imagery– the one ingredient (sorry) that stands out here is Murray. His ability to catapult an improvisation into a squeaky, high-register and just as gracefully fall back is familiar to those of us who’ve been following his work since his early recordings on the Italian Black Saint label. Murray’s willingness to combine elements of classic swing and bop, to recall masters from Ben Webster to Albert Ayler, and to do so in fresh, invigorating ways, is unique among tenor players. Then there’s his tone: rich, robust and razor sharp. The purity of his sound, even at its most wild, even when he somersaults through those previously mentioned upper- register squeaks or caterwauls deep in the low, makes his every solo, especially in these Afro-Caribbean rhythms, a thing of marvel. Yet there’s no doubt, no matter how different the frame of reference, who the saxophonist is.
The lyrics and background chanting provide much of Murray’s motivation to overachieve. Surprisingly, they’re a mixed bag. Reed’s poem that gives the recording its name is a driving story of recovery, powered by interwoven percussion and vocalizations. Singer Sista Kee makes the lyric flow against the rambunctiousness of her piano and the JuJu paced rhythm guitar of Christian Laviso. But even Taj Mahal can’t make Reed’s “Africa” fit the music in a meaningful way. The poem’s imagery of illness and recovery (a theme on the recording– “Africa, if I were a hospice worker…”–on lyrics by Kito Gamble as well as Reed) are apt and moving as spoken word. Setting them to music — this music — seems to dilute their message. Much more meaningful to the song: Murray’s heart-felt, flowing bass clarinet solo.
The rhythm section is the heart of this recording and it beats best when it is driving a bloodline of chanting that gives way to solos from Murray and trumpeter Rasul Sikkik. Bassist Jaribu Shahid provides just enough support and none of it overly repetitious, even as it grooves. Murray seems particularly responsive to the bass — or is it the other way around — and the effect is one of a single voice coming from eight different musicians. Lovers of both African pop and American jazz will find things to like, even love, here. What comes together on the Island won’t stay on the Island. And lucky for us.–Cabbage Rabbit