Thursday, February 18, 2010
Sunny Murray's time now (and then)
Where are they now, the still-living architects of free jazz? For one, they're in Sunny's time now [sic], a 2008 documentary about Sunny Murray that has just reached me on DVD. The descriptor "sprawling" was invented for films like this: It's all over the place. Sometimes rambling, sometimes pointed, but for anyone who's into this stuff, it's riveting, mainly because of the cast.
Everyone is here. It's like a family reunion. Sonny Simmons, Grachan Moncur III, Henry Grimes, William Parker, Bobby Few, Cecil Taylor, Tony Oxley, Robert Wyatt (?!) and tons of others whom I was either unfamiliar with or knew only marginally: François Tusques, Tony Bevan, Fritz Novotny and more. And then the scholars and scribes: Val Wilmer (hail), Ekkehard Jost, Tony Herrington, etc.
All assembled to illuminate a difficult personality. I adored Sunny Murray, and then I caught him live at Tonic in October of '04 with Sabir Mateen and Dave Burrell, a gig documented by Eremite but which I could barely stand to relive. Without going into detail, Murray appeared in a visibly altered state and after Burrell took it upon himself to bring some much-needed focus to a wholly disjointed and directionless performance, the drummer stood up, tapped the pianist on the shoulder and stopped him cold. Cecil Taylor recounts the incident in Sunny's time now and seems to have found it amusing. To me, it was a travesty: Burrell chose to take the gig seriously and Murray didn't, and that was that. (I hate to slander anyone, but sometimes the facts are the facts, as this review of a Murray performance from last June attests: "...Sunny Murray spent most of the performance stumbling off his drum stool, lurching through the crowd and talking loudly while [Odean] Pope gamely tried to keep some semblance of a concert together. Left to himself for most of the gig, Pope padded time with a lecture and demonstration on Clifford Brown. Just as he was wrapping it up, Murray staggered back to the stage and grabbed the mic. “I just want you to know, I’m not drunk,” he asserted in a slur....")
So I've had some mixed feelings re: Murray over the years, and for a while I couldn't even listen to him. But who could stay mad at The Copenhagen Tapes or Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come? And then I started to warm up to the relaxed splendor of the later work, especially the amazing Dawn of a New Vibration, a 2000 duo session with Arthur Doyle on Fractal. (A contemporaneous example of that badass partnership is here.) There just wasn't much point in staying mad at Sunny Murray.
The film doesn't shy away from Murray's foibles. Murray's son, who shows up in a few brief interview clips, expresses a bit of pride at his father's renown but even more vexation re: Dad's uneven temperament. Cecil Taylor, in his inimitably catty way, provides more evidence of same. And rehearsal footage of an insanely star-studded large-ensemble gig in Luxembourg depicts Murray as impish and distracted.
But there's so much to love and to marvel at here. Try a duo concert with Bobby Few, like the entire film, beautifully shot and recorded. Try the aforementioned Luxembourg gig. We only get a few segments, but dear God, the lineup: Murray, Grimes, Moncur, Few, Simmons, Pope, Rasul Siddick, Tony Bevan and more. And--so poetic and humble and real, I can't even begin to express--a small-group version of "Round Midnight" from a Paris club gig with Simmons, Few and some others. Tons of jazz musicians come full circle, moving through free jazz and back into standards, but rarely do they re-address the tradition with such grace as these expatriate free-jazz types. Simmons and Few, I already knew about, but Murray is such a good match for them. His restraint (perfectly content to wisp about with brushes) will astound you. Some very intrepid and enterprising producer needs to get these three together for a trio session pronto.
There's also so much here that has nothing to do with Murray. Little scraps re: the European and British perceptions of American free jazz. François Tusques praising Archie Shepp for his political awareness and mocking Frank Wright for his political ignorance. Val Wilmer going through old Murray photos she took, admiring how they capture his intense (and, she asserts, unusual for the idiom) love for his family.
Again, a mixed bag, but an essential one. The performance footage is golden. Loved seeing/hearing Murray in duet with Novotny, a soprano sax player with whom I was totally unfamiliar. And the concluding presentation of the Murray, Bevan and John Edwards trio is a mindfuck, full of brawn and sweat, but also grace. Didn't care for Spring Heel Jack contributions or another gig featuring unfortunate electric bass, but it all just hangs out there and becomes part of the film's weird patchwork quality. Maybe it's because Murray himself isn't directly interviewed (he is on the bonus disc, though), but everything here feels like a tangent. Fortunately many of these tangents also register as revelations.
But as I (tried to) indicate above, what will stick with you are the personalities of these still feisty old men, the immense variance. Simmons's absurdly charming rakishness, Few's heart-melting sweetness, Moncur's mercurial oddness, Taylor's relentless superciliousness. What an unbelievably diverse bunch of men, these first-wavers. This film's greatest triumph is to place all these artists in the NOW. We know them from records, and we often fetishize their discographies over their physical presences. (As the Murray gig I described above indicates, sometimes the artists have given us good reason to do so.) But they still have a lot to tell us.
Sunny's time now, yes. But it's also the time of all the others who lit the fire in the '60s and kept raging, albeit in a sublimated way. Think of Bill Dixon, whom I just listened to today in a fantastic trio with two young improv masters. Think of the aforementioned Dave Burrell, whose recent records are some of his very best.
In Murray's case, it's somewhere in between. For sheer ecstatic insanity, you're not going to beat his early work. But when he manages to keep his composure these days (the Bevan/Edwards band seems like a particular good focusing agent for him), he's really got something going, a droopy dance, the pinnacle of unhurriedness, following buzzy, uneven snare rolls with clumsy yet thunderous thwacks on bass drum and crash. And (as you can hear in the "Round Midnight" I mentioned above) a tremendous respect for song form, for contour, and (again, when he's behaving) for his fellow players. In the majority of the live footage in this film, he is, in fact, behaving, and accompanying in a remarkably sympathetic fashion. So if nothing else, the film helped me to further forgive Murray for the disastrous 2004 gig I'd caught. We may only get sporadic brilliance from Murray these days--a statement that applies to several of the aforementioned early-free-jazz survivors--but the good stuff is worth the required patience.
Anyone else have any similar stories of resentment and/or redemption re: first-wave free-jazzers, i.e., seen players of this style, caliber and age turn in either notably subpar or phenomenal gigs? I feel like this unpredictability is something every free-jazz fan has dealt with at one time or another.