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Excellent Adventurers

Worldly Jazz Explorers Andrew Hill and David Murray Bivouac in Baltimore

UP THE CREEK: Andrew Hill's musical explorations put him out of the jazz mainstream for years.
ROUND THE HORN: David Murray has redefined the tenor for the second century of jazz.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/12/2005

David Murray and Lafayette Gilchrist perform at An die Musik Jan. 14. Andrew Hill performs solo Jan. 15.

For more information, call (410) 385-2638 or visit Andie Musik live.

On a sunny afternoon last June, local pianist Lafayette Gilchrist shared a few stories about how saxophonist David Murray is a different kind of dude. Gilchrist has played in Murray’s quartet and octet since 2000, and he knows enough about him to know that the man’s mind is as complex and impressive as his music. Sometimes, Gilchrist says, Murray lets you know something very obliquely, permitting you to find yourself in what he’s looking for. Other times he’s very direct, such as when the octet was crossing France on an overnight train during a European tour, and Murray woke Gilchrist to tell him something he just had to share right then and there.

“He was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Lafayette, Lafayette,’” Gilchrist remembers, already cracking a smile before he’s even finished the setup. “So I woke up and said, ‘Yeah, David. What’s up?’”

Gilchrist pauses for dramatic effect and leans in as if sharing a secret. “And David says, ‘Lafayette, I’d hate to be your age right now, because your generation doesn’t know shit,’” Gilchrist says. “And he just kind of held my stare for a moment and then went back to bed. He was just letting me know what was what.”

Gilchrist smiles throughout the tale, knowing part of the rub was that at the time he was the youngest and newest member of Murray’s ensemble, and, well, the young and new guy has to earn his stripes. But he also knew that part of Murray’s comment was as serious as a heart attack, that the workhorse way jazz musicians matured when Murray was young—playing in everything from jazz and R&B groups to funk groups to gospel—is no longer the jazz education norm. For two master classes of just what the old school can teach the new, look no further than Murray’s duo date with Gilchrist this Friday and pianist Andrew Hill’s solo performance Saturday night, both at An die Musik.

Mainstream jazz acclaim is a fickle friend, and though Hill’s lengthy career recently is garnering the sort of critical attention that he hasn’t enjoyed since the mid-1960s, Hill’s oeuvre is one of constant, steady adventure. The Chicago native entered the jazz world playing for Dinah Washington and then Rahsaan Roland Kirk, starting a fertile 1960s relationship with Blue Note on Joe Henderson’s 1963 Our Thing. A player, composer, and arranger of elegant intelligence and entire spectrums of emotions, Hill’s ‘60s Blue Note run turned out a series of consummately sophisticated albums, a period high-water-marked by 1964’s Point of Departure.

Accomplished as that album is, the shape of Hill to come was told in its surrounding albums: the restless abandonment of standard bop rhythm patterns on 1963’s Black Fire; the ardent intelligence of 1963’s Smokestack; that left hard bop behind but stopped just shy of total free jazz, the all-percussion experiment of 1964’s Judgment!; the pan-cultural temperament of 1965’s Cosmos and long-form compositions of Compulsion. Come the late 1960s and early ’70s—that era when jazz started to lose young people to rock and R&B, and mainstream jazz started distancing itself from anything challenging or humorous—Hill’s own experiments with adding a social vision to the commercial appeal of soul-jazz, such as 1968’s underrated and overlooked Dance of Death, were shelved until the ’80s.

As with many working 1960s jazz players, the ’70s were hard on Hill commercially, even though creatively he hardly slowed down. He relocated to the West Coast and started teaching and working solo. His 1975 solo Live at Montreux revealed Hill to be adept and colorful with witty old styles (“Snake Hip Waltz”) and ruminative abstraction (“Nefertiti”), and he soon started relationships with smaller, independent labels such as Inner City and Soul Note that supported his music for the next 20 years.

Recent Palmetto albums—2000’s Dusk and ’02’s live A Beautiful Day—witnessed a rediscovery of the allure of Hill’s nimble music. Day especially bears the mark of a veteran’s confidence, combined with the spark and vitality of still-fresh ideas, all backed by a tight big-band combo responsive enough to handle Hill’s ambitious arrangements and smart enough to keep it loose.

Murray’s variegated career is a single-minded pursuit of the next thing he hasn’t tried yet. Born in 1955 and raised in Oakland, Calif., Murray is young enough to have grown up through both church gospel music and funk/R&B, but he’s also mature enough to feel the shadow of such 1960s giants as Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Sam Rivers. Active as a solo artist and member of the World Saxophone Quartet since the since 1970s, Murray’s prodigious talents are bettered only by his fearlessness. When listening to a batch of Murray’s music, you hear not so much the search of a sound but the search of the sound that comes out of the people involved, and creating the impression that Murray is confident enough to play with anybody on anything, provided they’re willing to explore with him.

Nowhere is such free-spirited thinking on better display than in Murray’s recent explorations into world music. Murray has long incorporated Afro-rhythms into his work (see “Mbizo” and “Dakar Dance” off 1988’s Deep River), but since 1988’s Spirituals, Murray has consistently applied his attention to folk and other indigenous forms. It has turned out to be a fruitful exploration, resulting in a string of refreshingly, soulfully alive albums. From 1998’s Creole (a Caribbean-spiced affair) to his melding of pan-African music with the a traditional Guadeloupe vocal technique gwo ka (1999’s Yonn-Dé) to the sublime second experiment out of such things (2004’s Gwotet), his blustery horn finds both the rhythmic muscle and melodic shape-shifting of these diverse world grooves. Listening to the gwo-ka collaborations are particularly wild, especially on Gwotet, which features Murray trading beefy, lyrical lines with Pharaoh Sanders and sounding like he’s been searching for this kind of nonjazz for years.

Murray lives in France now, making this performance with Gilchrist a rare small-venue appearance of one of music’s more innovative players. While it’s going to be a more intimate affair than his big-band fusions, you can bet the bandleader will playfully push his younger sideman just to see if he can keep up. And what’s going to make it a night not to miss is that Gilchrist can.

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