David Murray used to play football, so it's only natural the tenor saxophonist gets a rush from risk taking. The former punt returner sees music as a sport. "I get tired of the people that seem to permeate the jazz industry that wouldn't hit a risk if it was in front of their car," Murray says of his tendency to buck trends. "Just the idea of going through life and just being part of the status quo is kind of a hard thing to swallow."
The 48-year-old tenor saxophonist, bass clarinetist and composer is known for tackling abstract avant-garde improvisations. But he's also recorded tributes to artists as divergent as John Coltrane and the Grateful Dead. In 1998, he released an album of highly accessible ballads.
One of his recent projects is merging jazz with the music of the African diaspora, in particular the traditional music of Guadeloupe known as Gwo Ka. This isn't the first time jazz has been mixed with traditional African and Caribbean music -- Randy Weston has been doing it for decades -- but in less capable hands the union can sound like the proverbial train wreck.
Raised in Berkeley, California, Murray started down the musical path as an alto saxophonist playing gospel and later r&b. After hearing Sonny Rollins perform in 1966, he switched to tenor. The experience launched Murray's own jazz journey, which he saw as a natural evolution. He was finding little challenge in backing up r&b singers. "It's just something you grow into after you get tired of everything else," Murray says of his attraction to jazz. "It's like growing up, really. Once you get it in your ears, the bug just kind of gnaws at you. Then you've got an insatiable desire for knowledge."
Something else that attracted him to jazz: the opportunity to earn respect. "Jazz is probably the only business I can go into as an African-American man that I don't totally get fucked with all the time because of who I am and what I look like," he says. "I hate to harp on that kind of stuff, but that shit is still working."
In 1975, Murray moved to New York City and became part of the idiosyncratic avant-garde loft scene that was based in mostly abandoned industrial spaces below 14th Street. It was a hospitable environment for free jazz musicians perfecting their often dissonant and radical explorations. Murray quickly became known as a raw but unstoppable talent. His innovative sound was hard to categorize. The screeches, howls and non-traditional note selection owed much to '60s innovators Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. His vibrato brought to mind swing legends Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Like Illinois Jacquet, Murray had a penchant for playing -- loud -- above the tenor's normal register.
By 1977, Murray had three solo albums on independent labels and had joined up with Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett to form the World Saxophone Quartet. The ground-breaking group was one of the most celebrated and influential jazz ensembles of that era. Four of the biggest risk takers ever to put reeds in their mouths, its members dallied in edgy free jazz concepts, advanced harmony and rootsy blues and funk. To this day, the WSQ remains one of Murray's favorite outlets, a place where he can reunite with his mentors and play anything from Duke Ellington to Jimi Hendrix.
"I think we've kind of set up a precedent for saxophone quartets all over the world," he says. "We've developed a cohesion and a way to play with each other which is probably unequaled. The saxophone quartet has always been present in my life."
Both as a solo artist and with the WSQ, Murray has built a colossal reputation as an innovative force in the jazz community. He's also prolific, having logged dozens of albums as a leader, another 20-plus with the WSQ and countless more as a sideman. As a composer and arranger, he's made great strides and established a unique style. Murray's recent endeavor merging Guadeloupe's Gwo Ka music with his own eccentric, left-of-center style is part of his continuing effort to celebrate the ties between jazz and traditional African music. This focus evidenced on his albums Fo Deuk Revue and Creole from the mid-'90s. Last year Murray joined forces with three Gwo Ka masters -- vocalist Guy Konket and percussionists Klod Kiavue and Francois Ladrezeau -- to record Yonn-De, a unique marriage between jazz and traditional island sounds. The music is the centerpiece of Murray's upcoming Flynn concert.
Filled with seriously hypnotic grooves, catchy melodies and Murray's captivating solo flights, Yonn-De stands out as another lofty achievement on the reedman's resume. The earthy traditional sounds and jazzed-up folk melodies melt together. The music is danceable, some tunes recall the blues, and the instrumental solos come from the bebop tradition. Central to the music is the ka drum, a socially significant instrument that originated on slave ships. The instrument has tremendous range, an unusual timbre, and more melodic capacity than typical percussion. "I can relate to the drum with my saxophone and my clarinet and it feels very comfortable," Murray says. "That instrument is the solo instrument. It's really singing the melody the whole time."
With his lyrical protests, vocalist Guy Konket adds even more potency to this musical project. "He is thought of as one of the keepers of the flame of the original music that was developed out of their version of slavery, even though their version is not really over because they are still occupied by France," Murray says. "He's one of the main guys who talks about what it means for a country like Guadeloupe... They don't want to fly the French flag because they don't think that they're French and France won't let them fly their own flag so they are flagless, one of the only countries without a flag."
Although they have different backgrounds, Murray can relate to the Gwo Ka message. "I've been crying freedom all my life," he says. "Even though it's in a different language, it coincides with my ideas."