Swinging on the downtown lights

The David Murray Big Band cooks like a mother. And they're here to blow your head off.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
To catch sight of the saxophonist David Murray in the full flood of a solo is like watching the moment in David Cronenberg's Scanners just before the famous exploding head actually explodes. Shoulders heave, neck muscles bulge, Murray's trademark moustache wriggles. The saxophonist seems to be cooking from within, eyes closed as if to prevent them popping right out of his head. It's the most exciting sight in jazz, and the heat of the improvisatory moment can go on and on for a good part of an hour - who knows, perhaps for days if a drummer could be found to keep the beat that long.

In order to find Murray reaching the absolute extremes of emotional abandon it's perhaps necessary to see him as part of a trio or quartet, where the opportunities for sustained saxophone-abuse are greatest, but the promise of the 20-piece big band, which begins a British tour tomorrow, offers pleasures that should not be overlooked. For Murray's orchestra is the most highly regarded of all large ensembles in New York, where they kept up a legendary regular Monday night residency at the Knitting Factory for two years until the leader recently left them to live with his new girlfriend in Paris.

"It was very exciting," says Murray. "There were open rehearsals, students came in and it was a real composer's orchestra. When I could no longer continue I gave the band to the guys so they could take gigs on their own. 'I've given you the wings,' I said, 'now you can go out and fly.' "

Or rather he left them to revert to his original big band, which has been playing and recording since the early Eighties, but many of whose star players had stopped giving up their Monday nights to play the Knitting Factory in favour of more lucrative gigs. And, just to make things even more confusing, the big band Murray is touring with here is yet another one, composed of eight of the original American stars such as the trombonist Craig Harris, trumpeter Hugh Ragin and bassist Fred Hopkins, augmented with a group of British players, including the superb trumpeter Gerard Presencer, and accompanied by the Mancunian poet Lemn Sissay.

The music they will play has been specially commissioned by Birmingham Jazz, and Murray, speaking last week from Paris, was, in true jazz bandleader style, preparing to spend the next two nights without sleep completing it. The time-honoured tradition of shining trumpets, synchronised slide- trombones and serried ranks of reeds is one that Murray has been part of since high school in California. "I grew up in big bands," he says. "The first composition I ever did was for my sixth-grade concert band in the Berkeley school system, and my first arrangement was of 'Downtown' (yes, the Petula Clark kitsch classic, which could well be played as an encore on the tour), so I've gotten kind of comfortable with it."

With more than 150 albums behind him as a leader alone (and he's still only 42), Murray is one of the most musically promiscuous jazz musicians ever. Now that he's based in Paris we should see even more of him and I suggested that it would be good to hear him in a trio or quartet again, where he gets a chance to really smoke. "Hell, I'm ready to do that at the drop of a hat," he says. Promoters with a passion for exploding heads please take note.

The David Murray US/UK Big Band plays Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool (0151-709 5297), tomorrow and Sunday; QEH, London (0171-960 4242), 14 October; Sallis Benny Theatre, Brighton (01273 709709), 15 October; St George's Hall, Exeter (01392 421111), 16 October; NIA Centre, Manchester (0161-227 9254), 17 October; Turner Sims Hall, Southampton (01703 595151), 18 October; Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, (0121-236 5662), 19 October