"Please welcome," said saxophonist James Carter with his jazz poster-boy looks, immaculate gray suit and rapper’s diamond ring, "in his debut on this stage ."
Could that be true of the former enfant terrible of the Seventies loft scene, co-founder one of jazz’s most universally acclaimed and innovative ensembles, the World Saxophone Quartet, and the man Gary Giddins and the Village Voice named "Jazz Man of the 80’s"? His first gig at the Blue Note - and as a sideman for one of his disciples?
" Mr. David Murray."
It was true; proving again the classic jazz irony that musicians are often heralded when upstarts, ignored during their maturation (i.e., their most vital and innovative years), and acclaimed at their twilight. It’s a bi-product of a less than adoring industry that seems only comfortable to pitch the Next Big Thing and revere the legends.
In fairness to the Blue Note, the absence of Murray at the self-proclaimed "world’s most famous jazz club" could have more to do with Murray’s own choices. The great saxophonist, composer and bandleader has continually gone his own way, choosing artistic license over big marketing in recording for stellar but smaller international labels like Italy’s Black Saint, Japan’ DIW and currently Canada’s Justin Time. Such choices have allowed him to be both adventurous and prolific with flexibility at whim. He’s offered solo, duo, trio and quartet dates in his discography as well as recordings with his acclaimed octet, big band sets and excursions into gospel (with Fontella Bass) and World Music (with his Fo Deux Revue). He’s also spent much of the past decade in Paris and parts Europe where appreciative audiences and critics (he’s a Danish Jazzpar Prize Winner) have allowed him career positioning he might never have nurtured Stateside.
In fairness as well, "only now" still means the stellar saxophonist in mid-career despite his twenty-seven years as a jazz mover. Remarkable though it is, David Murray is still in his mid-forties and, unlike many late career discoveries, is writing and blowing in top form as this second night of a week long run at the Blue Note proved. And in fairness once again, James Carter, the blazing young multi-reed player whose name was on the marquee, has never made a secret of his homage to Murray as, if not exactly an idol, at least a pathfinder or musical mentor.
Carter since his "discovery" by Wynton Marsalis at 17 (he replaced brother Branford for a brief tour in 1985) has himself represented the contemporary version of the saxophonist colossus. The Detroit-born saxophonist is Murray’s equal in diversity with his all-in-one mix of soulful sophistication and down-in-the-groove chops that represent a yin and yang of grit and glamour. Like Joshua Redman, his fellow stand out in the Nineties, Carter represents a bridging of traditional jazzman groove and drive with the current language of hungry urban America. He has been one of jazz’s bright lights proving that the music can embrace the youth and vitality of today’s scene in the clubs and on the streets and in contrast to the conservatory historicism and PBS-ification of the art. Carter’s a throwback to swing or bebop era communalism rather than the go-it-alone Sixties and Seventies alienation we’ve come to expect. Fitting then that he was chosen (along with Redman and Murray) to play one of the house musicians in
In that spirit he invited Murray along for what amounted to a contemporary cutting session. The leader and his new Organ Trio with organist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Leonard King started things off with a warm-up on Charles Steping’s "Winter Meeting" with Carter constructing an a cappella intro that once again proved why he’s one of the most rhythmic soloists since Sonny Rollins. Gibbs, a rising star in his own right, tossed in his first solo of the evening, demonstrating his own call and response playfulness a greasier, down home traditionalist in the Jack McDuff rather than John Medeski mode. Yet just before he could set sail he was hushed with a hand motion by Carter. It seemed ironic that the ebullient Carter, despite an obvious camaraderie with his charges, played point man holding back the raucous game of street ball.
After Murray’s introduction, the group launched into Joe Henderson’s "Recorda Me." As if to avoid obvious competition, Murray took the tenor lead with Carter sparring beneath him on baritone sax. The former soloed first and immediately turned the relaxed street game into a full court competition. The Ayler or Dolphy in Murray’s tone often gets the most critical play and he certainly expresses the sense of relentless and conversational abandon of the two Sixties masters. However, over the past decade he’s offered more Ben Webster soul and straight-ahead Illinois Jacquet shout in his tone relying less on squonk and more on a huge swaggering vibrato. His solo gurgled and screeched, but he skirted total dissonance masterfully. Carter followed showing why he’s so valuable among younger players representing the triple threat on the neglected baritone horn as well as tenor and soprano.
"Along Came Betty" came next and the Carter soprano ballad highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the young player. It offered the chance to witness the second instrument in Carter’s blazing arsenal, his playing sailing atop King’s rhythmic swirl with a continual deconstruction of the melody. Even on the small horn, Carter flexes a muscular tone with none of the feathery warbles favored by most. Yet "Along Came Betty" is really just a vehicle for such a solo flight and there’s little meat on the songbird’s bones. Juxtaposed with Murray’s "Sad Kinda Love" which followed, it was a lightweight exercise.
But then again "Sad Kinda Love" is one of Murray’s finest compositions in years with his characteristic rhythmic swings and the indelible stamp of his influences. The piece starts as a ballad for tenor bringing to mind the arching flight of Hawkins’ "Body and Soul." He attacked the opening with the same ferocity that he did in a December octet show at the Iridium, digging in, his feet wide, his horn high and his eyes lost as they rolled back in his head. Watching Murray elaborate on his ragged glory of melody is like watching Picasso paint one gets as lost in the frenzied conversation as he does. There’s an inevitability in his solo statement as if every improvised note had been written with the purpose of a Raymond Carver story.
It was understandable that Gerard Gibbs followed such exultation tentatively. But as the young organist struggled to find his way, Murray who was standing directly behind his right ear gave him an encouraging "Yeah man." It was a leader’s moment that echoed the knowing nods of Duke or the bellicose admonishments of Mingus and that few words proved the perfect footing that Gibbs needed to push off. Gibbs found the gospel in Murray’s melody and squeezed it for all it was worth offering soulful joy that a Southern Bach would have been proud of. As he was wrapping up Murray mouthed "the big horn" to Carter’s choice of baritone for his solo and the leader stepped in to catch Gibbs’ pass with a high register peel.
As Carter, eyes closed, blazed through sixteenth note runs, Murray coached King into a samba groove. Effortlessly, Carter adjusted to the bounce, planted his feet and rode the rhythm for his finest solo of the evening. As Murray stepped in, the rhythm shifted yet again into a classic Seventies groove that coaxed the twin saxes into mutual abandon that was rousing, ecstatic improvised music.
Of course, it was obvious now that the night’s pacing had been intentional. Carter had tailored the evening’s sonic arc to a T. As the two grabbed their tenors for the final head-to-head exchange, the leader started in on a mock passionate quote of "Candy Man" (the Sammy Davis Jr. tune, not the Mississippi John Hurt number). He then launched into a fitting Kansas City style finale in the best Basie mode. Each offered a reckless solo and Gibbs contributed an innovative (if overused) mock Manhattan Transfer effect during his Roland solo. Then came the moment the audience had been waiting for as Carter and Murray traded furious fours, each listening appreciatively, igniting the each others spark, picking up on the briefest quotes and finishing the other’s musical thoughts.
The joyful swing summed up the meeting of musical minds of the leader and his mentor. Carter closed with a fitting Zen good night "Until the planets are in proper alignment again, peace and blessings." The second half of the performance was indeed that momentous.