Jazz at 100 Hour 92: David Murray & the World Saxophone Quartet (1979 – 1996)

World Saxophone Quartet

Perhaps no jazz musician recorded a more varied output in more diverse settings in the 1980s than tenor saxophone and bass clarinet player David Murray. Three of the best bands to emerge in the decade were his Octet, his Quartet and the collaborative – the World Saxophone Quartet. He may also have been the most recorded jazz artist of the decade, as well, and with consistently high quality.

“The most important development in jazz in the eighties was that young musicians learned to improvise in all the historical styles. In notable contrast to earlier generations of musicians, they had at their command an encyclopedic repertoire of playing styles that made it possible for them to carry on an intensive dialogue with the jazz legacy in its entirety. It is the reevaluation of jazz tradition, not its negation, that brought jazz furthest in the eighties and nineties. For the first time in the history of jazz, dialogue with the past became more important than a visionary look into the future—a dialogue in which examination of jazz’s rich legacy held more promise than utopias. There wasn’t, however, any single binding principle regulating encounters with jazz tradition: there were innumerably many. Nowhere else in eighties jazz did the immense range of neo-classicism become so clearly evident as in the differences between the music of David Murray and Wynton Marsalis. Both used a retrospective view of jazz’s history as a vantage point from which to create something new. Both reinvigorated a feeling for standards in jazz, thereby establishing new standards. Both took advantage of a pool of information that had never before existed with regard to jazz improvisation. And yet … the difference between them could hardly have been greater. After twenty years of free jazz’s destruction of norms and clichés, and after ten years of fusion music’s superficial formulas and mannerisms, Wynton Marsalis and David Murray used classical elements to give jazz new impetus.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

World Saxophone Quartet.
“Perhaps the most unified neoclassicist band is the World Saxophone Quartet… What welds the quartet so closely together are two integrating factors that generate mounting intensity within the band’s vital jump style. The WSQ gains its unusual degree of unity from constant interaction between, on the one hand, the fundamental freedom underlying its collective improvisation and, on the other, the unifying principle provided by riffs (the unceasingly repeated figures, derived from swing and rhythm and blues bands, which both support a soloist and provoke his efforts).” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

“Sometimes simple does the trick. At 3:23, Hamiet Bluiett’s elementary blues [‘I Heard That’] could have fit on a 78, and it doesn’t waste a moment. Most of the WSQ specialties were polyphonic or contrapuntal and encouraged collective improvisation; the most intricate were by Julius Hemphill and usually featured the quartet… Here, Bluiett offers a showcase for Hemphill’s roiling alto, his huge blistering sound buoyed by precision stop-time chords, as he renovates old licks and bonds them with biting asides and turnbacks. Hemphill sustains the churchy signifying and technical élan that too often took a back seat to his composing, posing, japing.” – Gary Giddins

Fast Life. World Saxophone Quartet
(Hamiet Bluiett-bs/as, Julius Hemphill-as/ts, Oliver Lake-as/ts/ss, David Murray-ts/bcl). From W.S.Q. 3/1980

I Heard That. World Saxophone Quartet
(Hamiet Bluiett-bs/alto cl, Julius Hemphill-as/ss/fl, Oliver Lake-as/ts/ss/fl, David Murray-ts/bcl). From Revue. 10/14/1980

David Murray Octet.
Ming, the 1980 album where Murray first presents his celebrated Octet—with Anthony Davis (piano), Henry Threadgill (alto sax), George Lewis (trombone), Olu Dara (trumpet), Butch Morris (cornet), Wilbur Morris (bass), and Steve McCall (drums)—is a key work of eighties jazz. Here Murray for the first time presented in music his conviction—never before expressed with such multistylistic breadth—that ‘the entire legacy of jazz is avant-garde’ (Stanley Crouch). Murray’s music doesn’t pontificate on jazz history, but makes surprisingly and sensuously clear how revolutionary the collective improvisations of New Orleans jazz are, how forward-looking the jungle sounds of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, how excitingly revolutionary Charlie Parker’s bebop and the Charles Mingus Band’s liberation of tempo. Murray uncovers what lies at the heart of traditional elements, pointing toward the development of contemporary jazz.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

“Some might say that the best jazz record of the decade came along before it was properly under way. Ming is an astonishing record, a virtual compression of three generations of improvised music into 40 minutes of entirely original jazz, played by a perfectly balanced, tensely sprung octet. The brasses are tight but so individual in tone and timbre one hears every component … The opening ‘Fast Life’ has a hectic quality reminiscent of another of Murray’s household gods, Charles Mingus.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

The Fast Life. David Murray Octet
(Olu Dara-tp, Lawrence Butch Morris-cor, George Lewis-tb, David Murray-ts/bcl, Henry Threadgill-as, Anthony Davis-p, Wilber Morris-b, Steve McCall-per). From Ming. 7/25 – 7/28/1980

Ming. David Murray Octet
(Olu Dara-tp, Lawrence Butch Morris-cor, George Lewis-tb, David Murray-ts/bcl, Henry Threadgill-as, Anthony Davis-p, Wilber Morris-b, Steve McCall-per). From Ming. 7/25 – 7/28/1980

Home. David Murray Octet
(Lawrence Butch Morris-cor, Olu Dara-tp, George Lewis-tb, Henry Threadgill-as/bfl, David Murray-ts/bcl, Anthony Davis-p, Wilber Morris-b, Steve McCall-per). From Home. 9/25 – 9/30/1983

As he does with his Octet, Murray continues to return to a traditional Tenor Quartet format with regularity. His first quartet outing of the 1980s featured a veteran lineup of John Hicks on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. The LP Morning Song featured the mandatory tenor standard ‘Body and Soul.’

Murray collaborated with pianist Don Pullen on several excellent projects through the 1970s and 1980s. After Pullen’s death he recorded a tribute LP, The Long Goodbye. “On one track, ‘El Matador’ … he plays a duet with pianist DD Jackson … In ‘El Matador,’ Murray and Jackson explore Spanish scales and feelings dear to Pullen, as exemplified by his memorable 1988 trio recording ‘At The Café Centrale.’ Yet unlike Pullen’s piece, which is raucously festive, ‘El Matador’ is dark and ruminative, progressing from a solemnly heraldic theme (suggesting the matador entering the ring) to piecing climatic cries.” – Scott Deveaux & Gary Giddins

Body And Soul. David Murray Quartet
(David Murray-ts, John Hicks-p, Reggie Workman-b, Ed Blackwell-d). From Morning Song. 9/25/1983

El Matador. David Murray – DD Jackson Duo.
(David Murray-ts, DD Jackson-p). From The Long Goodbye. 9/30 – 10/1/1996 (The Norton Collection)

Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition.
While we have primarily featured David Murray on tenor sax, he is one today’s primary innovators on bass clarinet. He was featured on two of drummer Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition projects. Of the first, Morton and Cook write, “The group here could hardly have been bettered at the time: [Alto saxophonist] Black Arthur Blythe at his most soulful, David Murray in staggeringly good form on bass clarinet for the opening ‘One For Eric’… Make no mistake, this is a great jazz record…”

One For Eric. Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition
(Arthur Blythe-as, David Murray-ts/bcl, Peter Warren-b/cel, Jack Dejohnette-d/p/melodica). From Special Edition. 3/1979

David Murray has continued to the present as one of the more peripatetic musicians on the scene. He records music of astonishing variety, including, for example, tributes to the Grateful Dead and Nat King Cole and collaborations with Cuban and Guadeloupean musicians.

Ironically, the record label that most consistently offered an outlet for the American jazz avant-garde in the 1980s was the Italian Black Saint / Soul Note imprint. On the site All About Jazz, Jeff Stockton wrote, “…from 1984 to 1989 Black Saint won the Down Beat critics poll for ‘Best Label’ and ‘Best Producer’ and established itself as the Blue Note of its time, a label whose mark and reputation alone assured the listener that the music would be adventurous, exciting jazz of the highest order.” In the next hour of Jazz at 100, the adventurous Black Saint / Soul Note releases of the 1980s.

The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins. W.W. Norton 933796.
World Saxophone Quartet. W.S.Q. Black Saint BSR 09046
World Saxophone Quartet. Revue. Black Saint BSR 0056
David Murray Octet. Ming. Black Saint BSR 120 045
David Murray Octet. Home. Black Saint BSR 0055
David Murray Quartet. Morning Song. Black Saint BSR 0076
David Murray Quartet. The Long Goodbye. DIW 930
Jack DeJohnette. Special Edition. ECM 1152

Berendt, Joachim-Ernst. 2009. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century. Chicago, IL. Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.
The Styles of Jazz: The Eighties
The Musicians of Jazz: David Murray and Wynton Marsalis
Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company
Chapter 15. The Avant-Garde
Giddins, Gary. 2004. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century. New York, NY. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 118. Postwar Jazz: An Arbitrary Roadmap (1945 – 2001)
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
World Saxophone Quartet. W.S.Q,
David Murray. Ming
Jack DeJohnette. Special Edition

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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