Sunday, February 09, 2014

Soundchasing: Sunny Murray

In various writings on Milford Graves, I've mentioned the idea of chasing a sound. I'm not sure what it is about this certain species of drummer—Graves, Paul Motian, Sunny Murray, Elvin Jones—but sometimes I get it into my head that I just can't listen to anything else other than the sound of one of these players. It's like a craving for a certain kind of food that overcomes me, sticks around and then gradually departs. And I'm finding that it's cyclical. My pantheon is taking concrete shape, in other words. I'm open to new information, but I think the names mentioned above will always be a part of the rotation; these strong desires to hear them, and only them, will come back around.

Lately, the sound I'm chasing is Sunny Murray's. As with Milford Graves's, Murray's sound can be a hard one to really locate. It's been ages since I've seen the man perform, and that was not a positive experience. So I've been been busy sifting through what's there to sift through on record. Again, as with Milford Graves, I defy the museum-ification of artists like this, the holding up of their
"legendary" early recordings—often the ones on ESP or BYG, or the ones with some similar kind of first-wave cachet—as the best place (other than live) to hear them. Recent examples aren't as numerous as I'd like them to be, but both Graves and Murray have been extremely well-served by state-of-the-art modern recording technology.

Right now, I'm listening to Tiresias, a 2011 release under Louie Belogenis's name. As Clifford Allen—a serious Murray scholar—points out in the liner notes, we should treasure this opportunity to hear Murray in such gorgeous studio fidelity. (Beyond Quantum, a 2008 Tzadik set featuring William Parker and Anthony Braxton, is probably the closest equivalent in the Milford Graves discography.) So I've got this record on, and I just want to dive deep down in it. The crisp rattle of the snare, the lavish boom of the toms and bass drums—a sublimated thunder, as though Murray could shake the walls if he wanted to, but is content to flutter around wraithlike. And then gradually swelling the cymbals, rustling and conjuring, behind Belogenis. It's such a loving curtain of sound that Murray drapes over this session. He was obviously onto something similiar as early as Spiritual Unity, but I think he's a better listener, a better drummer, a better musician now.

The sound quality on I Stepped Onto a Bee, recorded in 2010 with Murray's current working-triomates Tony Bevan and John Edwards, isn't quite as stellar as what you hear on Tiresias—there's a certain brittleness to the sound, kind to the high end, but less so to the Elvin-y low end that's so crucial to Murray's overall delivery—but this one's also essential for the devoted Sunny Murray soundchaser.

There's a prevailing sense that Murray's approach to drumming is a sort of a default: He couldn't swing back in the day, so he had to resort to this. There aren't enough good vintage examples of Murray trying to "swing" for us to really make that call. I think Murray's dangerously easy to underestimate, though. Certainly, unlike Milford Graves—at least in my experience of seeing him play, Graves has never seemed anything less than scarily poised—there are times (such as the 2003 Tonic gig I caught) where Murray has appeared on the bandstand in a less-than-ideal headspace. You listen to these recent records, though, and you hear Murray's voice as clearly as if he were speaking; he's not doing this thing because he can't do that thing. He's doing this thing because it's the thing he's chosen and perfected.

This signature Murray style isn't the only style he's capable of delivering, by any means. There are plenty of obscure recent sessions—such as this very strange and not quite satisfying Archie Shepp record with Richard Davis, and an astounding bootleg I grabbed off Soulseek years ago of a 1998 Sonny Simmons / Sonny Murray duo gig in Cambridge—where you can hear Sunny Murray capably swinging in a relatively traditional vein, and sounding utterly like himself at the same time. But at his best, such as on I Stepped Onto a Bee, the idea of whether or not he's technically swinging is irrelevant. The point is that he controls the pace and the sensation of the music completely, decides whether it will be a ghostly dirge-blues, or this sort of surging free shout. And while the Murray sound is enveloping, especially that patented irregular cymbal swell, which carries you along like a mist at your back, what's most impressive is the blend, the way he occupies certain frequencies, fills up all the sound around his collaborators, so that he's buffeting them rather than drowning him out. (It would seem from this great Paris Transatlantic interview with Murray that there's more science to this—i.e., that very special way in which Murray inhabits and sort of plasticizes musical space—than many have thought. "I wanted to get more from the beat than just the beat," as he puts it.)

On Dawn of a New Vibration, Murray's tough-to-find 2000 duo session with the late Arthur Doyle (see also: Burning Ambulance), the drummer gets so much more from the beat than just the beat. One of the tracks here is titled "Elephant Dreams," and that's exactly how I think of Murray's sound on this record. The shaggy, loping weight of the sound coming off his kit here is just extraordinary. More and more, this is what I look for in a drum sound. It's Bonham; it's Elvin; it's Milford; it's Motian; it's prime Sunny Murray. It's that sense of dragging sound and rhythm, hauling it around like a sack of potatoes. It's not mutually exclusive with a certain kind of nimbleness, but the principal imperative is the earth-ness of the sound, the way that it rumbles through the ground and the air. Dawn of a new vibration, indeed.

During times like these, I need nothing more than that thwack, that thump and shimmer, that unmistakable sonic signature. It's not something you can capture. You need to be in the room with it, really. But recent, top-quality studio recordings can get you about halfway there, which is saying a lot. Right now, I'm breathing it in like oxygen.


In terms of sheer distinctiveness of voice, I've also been deep into both Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace and Stanley Crouch's Kansas City Lightning. Such a pleasure to hear these men speaking, as Sunny Murray does, with such authority and idiosyncrasy—being themselves at such a simultaneously refined and unapologetically raw level, in other words. That is what we mean by author, artist.

And since hearing this wonderful news, I've also been chasing the sound of Slint drummer Britt Walford, another player who's got a secure spot in my aforementioned percussive pantheon. When it comes to boomy, wide-open girth of sound, and a gorgeously loose feel, he is one of our contemporary masters. Such a shame that his discography is so tiny—really just three Slint releases and one relatively unrepresentative LP apiece by the Breeders and Evergreen, as well as various odds and ends, including this crucial pre-Slint rarity by Maurice. Even Graves's and Murray's relatively scant recorded works dwarf Walford's. I did find this enticing tidbit from last year, though. By the way, all fans of Britt Walford specifically and Slint in general need to read Scott Tennent's 33 1/3 book on Spiderland. The coming Lance Bangs doc ought to be a revelation, but until then, Scott's volume represents the deepest knowledge base we have on this insular band/scene.

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