On a chilly Thursday in May, saxophonist David Murray wears socks and black rubber sandals, a T-shirt bearing the words "New York Skyscraper" in tidy block letters, and a jacket with grommets lining the hood, which he found at Oakland's EastSide Cultural Center, where he serves on the advisory board. His face is a study: handsome in a sobering kind of way, with a handlebar mustache and sunken orbs. "He's got a kinda look," says Baltimore pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, who has played in Murray's Black Saint Quartet since he met the Oakland-born jazzman about a decade ago. "When he looks at you, it looks like he's looking through you sometimes."
Most famous for founding the World Saxophone Quartet in 1977, Murray has recorded more than sixty albums to date half of which he doesn't own. The 52-year-old speaks so softly you can hold a tape recorder inches from his lips and the words are barely audible when you play it back. It's the voice of someone more accustomed to talking with his horn.
In person, Murray sounds shy; on vinyl, he sounds like someone in an emotional tailspin. The opening line of his new album, Sacred Ground, is an elastic flurry of notes that starts as a wail and unravels into nothingness. It's so stinging and visceral that you start to feel you shouldn't be listening as if you've just walked in on someone screaming in his bedroom.
Murray started playing alto saxophone as a fourth-grader at Berkeley's Longfellow Elementary and bought his first tenor sax two years later, after watching Sonny Rollins perform at the Greek Theatre. "I told my dad, "Sonny has a bigger sax that I like,'" he recalls. "So I went to the credit union and worked out a plan to pay back $700. The first night I got the sax I took it to church and played it. I even took the fingering chart. I was squeaking and squawking probably similar to what I do now. But now I actually know what I'm doing."
By the time he graduated from St. Mary's High School, Murray had gigged all over Oakland and San Francisco with his high-school R&B group. Within a decade, he'd become one of the most renowned free-jazz players in the world. Murray now lives in Paris, where he runs a small jazz label with his wife Valerie. He uses music to shore up a sense of rootedness and, perhaps, of something sacred.
Sacred Ground which features Black Saint Quartet drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Ray Drummond, Gilchrist on piano, and guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson singing a libretto by Ishmael Reed was inspired by Marco Williams' 2006 documentary film Banished, about the overlooked history of black displacement from Southern and Midwestern towns during Reconstruction.
Murray says he was drawn to Wilson who sings the opening and closing numbers because of his fascination with oozy, lower-range sounds. "Her voice to me represents a cello," he says. "When a female voice has that lower edge to it, it is really sexy."
For Wilson, the real selling point was the album's final track a blood-bucket blues Murray composed to go with Reed's poem. Called "Prophet of Doom," it recasts the mythological Greek princess Cassandra as a kind of '40s noir heroine in the vein of Dorothy Dandridge. In her drowsy, gravelly tenor, Wilson drawls: Apollo took me to school but I taught him a thing or two/Never think that because you're a god every girl will put out for you/He must have thought I was an easy nymph/Someone he could seduce and pimp.
Wilson's Cassandra is husky and melancholy, with a tendency to fade in the middle of a lick, as though she's chewed off the ends of the words. "She was a slave," Reed explains. "She was sexually exploited. People didn't believe her. They thought she was paranoid. And she had hair issues," he adds, postulating that Cassandra wore dreadlocks.
But she was very beautiful, Reed says: "That's why I have the ironic line about Helen with her so-so looks." Wilson utters that line I told the fool to leave that married man alone/The one with the so-so looks, she will ruin our Trojan horse with the sour conviction of an In Living Color character saying, "I ain't one to gossip, so you ain't heard that from me."
Murray's sax bobbles in and out of the melody lines, dropping, vaporizing, and then rising to a primal squeal. Despite his "maximalist" freeform idiom, his style also bears traces of the black church, where he was introduced to music, and where his parents met: "My father learned to play guitar so he could be close to my mother," Murray says, noting that his mother, formerly the music director of Missionary Church, could remember a song after hearing it once.
As he describes it, playing the sax is about linking that church lineage to a larger diaspora, and finding within it a way to express his own humanity. While Reed says he had Wilson in mind when he wrote the lyrics for "Prophet of Doom," many listeners would consider Murray's horn the song's real Cassandra.
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