By Troy Dostert
It’s been hard to figure David Murray out during the last decade. After being so prolific and consistently inspired during the 1980s and 1990s—helping to put the Black Saint label on the map with iconic records like Ming, Sweet Lovely, The Hill, and Body and Soul, not to mention his countless titles for DIW and other labels, productivity that continued well into the early 2000s—his recent output has been relatively sporadic, without a clear trajectory. He went from releasing at least one record a year (and often more like three or four) to one every couple years, and only a handful since 2009. It’s also been a strange mix of repertoire and concept since then: a Cuban-styled tribute to Nat Cole; a funk/fusion disc co-led with Jamaaladeen Tacuma; and a vocalist-driven record with Macy Gray and Gregory Porter. None of these recordings were slapdash or poorly made; it really seems hard to conceive of David Murray ever making a bad record. But at the same time, it did seem as though something was missing—a lack of fire or sustained sense of purpose, perhaps—and some wondered if Murray’s best years were behind him. Then last year, he made a heck of a record with Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington (Perfection), a scorching tribute to Ornette Coleman that earned its way onto a number of critics’ best-of lists for the year and suggested that a revitalized Murray was on his way.
And now, further evidence: he’s gone back to an old friend, pianist Aki Takase, with whom he first made a duo record back in 1993 (Blue Monk), during one of his most fertile recording periods when both he and Takase were charging ahead with their mutual commitment to breathe avant-garde life into classic repertoire. That record included a bunch of standards (five by Monk, along with “Body and Soul” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mr. Jelly Roll”), but with the outward-leaning touches that made their engagement with the tradition seem fresh and invigorating. So after almost twenty-five years since their first meeting, how does this one sound?
Quite good, as it turns out. Although not perhaps in the manner one might expect. There are fewer of Murray’s upper-register flights and nimble acrobatics, and more of a gravitas, a measured delivery and soulful voice that might represent the perspective of an older Murray, or maybe a deeper engagement with the spiritual center of the music. From the first few bars of Murray’s rich tenor on the haunting, gorgeous opener, “Cherry-Sakura,” one senses that this music will involve the search to find a deeper emotional resonance than mere technical brilliance could offer. (Even so, anyone wondering whether Murray can still deliver the goods should check out Takase’s “A Very Long Letter,” the second cut on the record, for proof that he can still head into the stratosphere whenever he wants to do so.) Takase also sounds less aggressive, seeking the substance of each tune and drawing out its essence rather than relying solely on technique (although like Murray, she has a few adventurous departures of her own on the record—note her punchy, tempestuous surges on Murray’s “Stressology” as an example).
Subtle gospel and blues-based flourishes appear from time to time, and there’s a stately elegance to a lot of the playing that is very compelling, even though some listeners might want a bit more fire and flash. With four of the tracks credited to Takase and three to Murray (and just one cover: Monk’s “Let’s Cool One”—yes, it seems appropriate that there’s a Monk cover), it’s not at all fair to characterize this as a David Murray record. It’s a true partnership, and both players seem equally keen to abandon theatrics in favor of a humble quest for beauty. Fortunately for the listener, they manage to find it more often than not.