Tag Archives: Eric Alexander

In Honor Of The 91st Birth Anniversary of Cecil Payne (1922-2007): A Liner Note and Full Interview

It’s the 91st birth anniversary of the late baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, who passed away six years ago. Despite various physical ailments, he was performing at a high level until into the early aughts. In 2000, I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for a Delmark recording, his fourth, titled Live At The Jazz Showcase, with Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Harold Mabern, John Webber and Joe Farnsworth. I’ve appended first the liner note, and then the unedited interview with Mr. Payne.

Cecil Payne, Chick, Boom: Live At The Jazz Showcase:

“People know what a Mambo is, they know what a waltz is, and they know what a tango is, but they don’t know what jazz is,” says Cecil Payne, who, from the perspective of 78 years on the planet, 60 spent as a working musician, has some wisdom on the subject.  “When you play Jazz, you play Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom.  It’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and Baby Dodds.  If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.”

On “Live At the Jazz Showcase,” culled from three revelrous evenings in the hospitable ambiance of the venerable Chicago room, Payne and his hardcore unit — all but pianist Harold Mabern are 40 to 45 years his junior — apply that seemingly elementary dictum with a vengeance, conversing with a swinging simpatico that devastates any presumption of a generation gap.  The dialogue began one evening in 1993, when tenorist Eric Alexander came to Augie’s — the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured many of New York’s finest during the ’90s — to jam with Payne, the late tenor giant Junior Cook, and master-of-all-tempos trapsetter Joe Farnsworth.

“I had retired from music,” Payne recalls, “but I would take the bus to New York to play with Junior and Joe, because there’s something about playing with friends where you don’t have to worry about wrong notes.  I was having a great time.  I still am.

“From the first tune Eric played that night, I thought he was going to be great.’  He had style.  He still has.  And everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago.  They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.  It’s not only the spirit of their playing, but these jokers are like computers in music theory.  I keep learning from them.  We didn’t have any music when we made this date, and Eric created the background harmonies.”

The sentiment is mutual.  “Cecil has a certain economy in his playing,” says Alexander, who along with Farnsworth and authoritative trumpeter Jim Rotondi comprise half of One For All, a cooperative sextet with five records under its belt whose members have evolved into consequential voices during their long association.  “In his soloing and writing he always seems to break down any series of chord progressions or melodies to the true essence of the tune.  I’ve never heard Cecil play anything corny or extraneous or trivial.  Then, his time is ridiculous, and he gets the most pleasing baritone saxophone sound I’ve heard.  A lot of times you hear baritone saxophonists bark or go heavy on the tongue, but Cecil’s approach is very light.  I think it comes from the fact that he was originally an alto player, and in addition he liked Lester Young, and tried to transfer that approach to the baritone.  He is from the era that we all wish we were from, and he is part of that revolution in the music that we wish we could have been part of.  For us, it’s a treat to be associated with him.”

Payne enthusiastically cosigns his passion for the President, manifested here by “Ding-A-Ling,” a modernist reworking of the Basie classic “Jive At Five,” and by the perfectly timed quote of “Taxi War Dance” that he deploys to springboard into the turnback of his solo on “Bosco,” a Latin rouser in B-flat-minor.

“When I was about 13, I heard Lester Young’s 2-bar break on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ by Count Basie,” the Brooklyn native remembers.  “I told my father, ‘Buy me a saxophone!’  Every now and then I heard Basie at Bedford and Atlantic Avenues, and I stayed by that bandstand all night to watch Lester Young.  His horn was all green in between the keys!  But the sound that came out was something else.  My main influence was listening to Lester Young.  I bought every record that came out.  I learned every note, every solo.”

Payne’s father not only bought him an alto, but took him to neighborhood celebrity Pete Brown, the renowned jump alto saxophonist, for lessons at a quarter a pop.  By 19, Payne was “playing alto parts” in a band led by Boys High School classmate Max Roach (personnel included ur-boppers Victor Coulson [trumpet], Allen Tinney [piano], Leonard Gaskin [bass] and, for a short time, Charlie Parker) at Georgie Jay’s Taproom at 78th Street and Broadway for a 9-to-3 shift; he occasionally accompanied Roach to Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem to play the 4-to-8 a.m. afterhours shift.  He caught the ear of proprietor Clark Monroe; when Payne emerged from three years in the Service, Monroe, walking the walk on his determination to “get jobs for all my boys that come out of the Army,” sent the newly decommissioned young saxman to Roy Eldridge, who was looking for an alto player for a fortnight gig at the Spotlite, the 52nd Street club that Monroe managed.

“When I got there,” Payne relates, “Roy Eldridge told me he’d just hired Sahib Shihab to play alto.  I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished, Roy said, ‘Where can I find a baritone player?’  I had a baritone I’d played in a stock band when I was 15, and he said, ‘Bring it tomorrow.’  Dizzy came in to see Roy, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy Ballroom, where he was working.  When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing, and I put on a uniform jacket and joined them.  Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and then I took a solo in B-flat, maybe ‘I Got Rhythm’ — I couldn’t play much else.  Everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.”

During Payne’s two years with Gillespie he recorded well-parsed, Prez-inflected solos on “Ow!” and “Stay On It” that cemented his rep as bebop’s first baritonist.  On a Fall 1948 session with James Moody and Chano Pozo he waxed the oft-recorded “Cu-Ba,” kicking off a career as a composer of pungent melodies and protein-rich harmonic progressions whose logic masks a subtle, complex sensibility.  That Payne retains the fire of the nascent bop years is evident in the chopbusting set-closer “Cit Sac” (it’s “Lover” in B-flat, with a sly quote of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge).  That he has not forgotten the passions that fueled that fire is clear on “You Will Be Mine Tonight,” a lyric champagne before the fireplace ballad of 1999 vintage inspired by memories of an Army buddy bandmate’s amorous adventures in a hotel room while on the road directly after the war.

Payne’s subsequent c.v. includes big band stints with Illinois Jacquet, Machito, Woody Herman and Count Basie, not to mention substantial combo work with the likes of fellow Brooklynites Randy Weston, Duke Jordan, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Dorham, and the indefatigably creative Harold Mabern, a friend and colleague for forty years.  There isn’t much jazz history he hasn’t seen or experienced.

“Cecil knows a lot, and if you want to find out what he really knows, you have to sit down and talk to him and ask him questions,” Alexander notes.  “When he explains how he approaches certain things, it seems so obvious and simple that you can’t believe you didn’t already think of it.  It’s the most obvious way, but it’s also the way that most people never even get to — it’s in front of their face, and they look right past it.  I think that explains a lot about the directness and honesty in his playing.  There’s no B.S.”

You’ll hear that directness and honesty in the declamations of all members on Chick, Boom, a session providing abundant proof that Cecil Payne’s DNA contains no atavistic genes.  Resolutely optimistic, Payne unfailingly wields his memories and experience as a springboard to future explorations and conversations framed by the jazz lifebeat.

Which is neither BOOM-CHICK nor BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK.  In case you didn’t hear him clearly before, Payne reiterates what it is: “It’s Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth.  That’s ‘and.’  Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up.  That’s ‘and-one.’ Then you bring it down to the ‘and-boom.’  Chick-boom.  It’s very easy.  It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.”

* * *

Interview with Cecil Payne for Liner Notes:

TP:    This is your fourth record for Delmark, and on each one Eric Alexander has been by your side.  It sounds like you got a lot of inspiration from coming down to these sessions at Augie’s and hearing these guys, and that it’s been a reciprocal inspiration — they’ve obviously been inspired by you.  But it’s like a context or framework to just do your thing.

PAYNE:  What you’re saying is true.  It started in 1992 when I retired.  I was living in Camden, and I wasn’t playing much, just in some of the clubs here.  I ran into a friend, Junior Cook, the tenor player.  I had a Jazzmobile to do in New York.  I called everybody up, but I didn’t have a drummer.  I said, “Can you find me a drummer, man?”  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll get you  drummer.”  I said, “Who is it?”  He said, “Don’t worry about it!”  Up to the last minute I was thinking about it, because drummers have to play the right beat and keep the groove.  So here comes the drummer.  He has a blue suit on and a tie, and that was Joe Farnsworth.  I say, “Is that the cat?”  He says, “Yeah.”  I said, “Oh my goodness.”  He didn’t look that good.  But when we’d crossed the point where we’d played the first number, I turned to Junior and said, “Where did you find this cat?”  That was Joe Farnsworth.  And he’s a hundred times better now than he was then.

TP:    He sounds like no one else but him now.

PAYNE:  Yeah.  So it was me, him and Junior working at Augie’s.  Every weekend I would go to New York, just to play, because there’s something about playing when you don’t have to worry about wrong notes, just getting yourself together and playing with friends that you know and have the same feeling.  I was having a great time.  I still am.  That’s when Eric Alexander came down to play at Augie’s.  The first tune he played, I said, “Man, this cat is going to be great.”  Because he had style, too.  He still has.  Everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago.  They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.

TP:    You just said a word that’s very interesting to me.  You’re able to have a conversation with these guys, and they’re all about 40-45 years younger than you.  That’s an amazing thing about jazz, isn’t it.

PAYNE:  Yeah, with jazz you don’t have to speak a language.  You can go to any country in the world and play with musicians, and you understand each other.  It’s a feeling for the music.

TP:    So what you’re saying is that playing with these guys, because they’ve mastered the fundamentals and they’re such fluent musicians, allows you to be free.

PAYNE:  Yeah, but it’s more than that.  You said fundamentals.  See, these jokers are like computers in music theory.  See, there’s not only the spirit of playing, but they also know everything they play on piano and the chord changes and the notes and everything they do.  They’re very advanced.   So it keeps me learning from them, too.  In the old days sometimes you’d play by ear, and then there were chords you’d play.  But these young musicians, they have computer minds that they can just stand up and talk to you about it ‘and tell you what note.  When we made the record date, Eric was the one who could create the harmony in the background at the date, and we didn’t have any music.  He, Jim Rotondi and Steve Davis all work together.  They’re like best friends.  I feel real comfortable when I play with them…for my last few days.

TP:    And Harold Mabern is also a constant on these records.

PAYNE:  Mabern is my teacher! [LAUGHS] We know each other from way back, since the ’50s.

TP:    He got to Chicago in ’56 or ’57 and then New York at the beginning of the ’60s.

PAYNE:  He moved to Brooklyn.  We lived right near each other.  Mabern is my mentor, man.  He knows that piano.  He’s like the foundation.

TP:    He’s one of the few with a real two-hand approach to bebop language.

PAYNE:  Oh yeah, he knows that.

TP:    Say a little something about each of the tunes.  “Chick, Boom.”

PAYNE:  “Chick, Boom.”  Most people say, “What is jazz?”  Nobody knows what Jazz is.  They know what a Mambo is.  They know what a waltz is.  They know what a tango is.  But they don’t know what Jazz is.  Jazz is Chick-Boom.  It’s not Boom-Chick.  When you play Jazz, you play Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom.  That’s Jazz, “Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom.  It’s not BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK.  If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.  Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth.  That’s “and.”  Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up.  That’s “and-one.”  Then you bring it down to the “and-boom.”  “Chick-boom.”  It’s very easy.  It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.

TP:    You were born in 1922 and you started playing before Bebop.  Is that the beat you remember from when you were first playing, and it continued in various forms after you played with Dizzy and so on?

PAYNE:  You’re going too far ahead.  See, when I was younger, the only thing I ever heard was calypsos, because my parents are from Barbados.  When I went to public school and was about 13, we moved into a house that had a victrola, and somebody had left a record on there, which was a Count Basie record, “Honeysuckle Rose,” and when they put it on I heard Lester Young make this 2-bar break.  I told my father, “buy me a saxophone!”  He bought me an alto.  There was a musician my father used to hear on Gates Avenue named Pete Brown.  We lived right by this 129 public school, and my father asked him if he could give me lessons, and he said yes.  25 cents a lesson.

TP:    So you studied with Pete Brown, one of the first jump alto players.

PAYNE:  I think I heard Pete Brown play once.  I never heard him play jazz.  But he taught me how to read.  If I came there and didn’t know the lesson, he would say, “Go home, man, and read and study.”

TP:    So he’d embarrass you into learning it.

PAYNE:  That’s right.  He made me… I didn’t know how to solo.  When I went to high school, at Boys High School, I met Max Roach.  I didn’t know I was older than him until recently.  There were some local bands we played with.  I played with some big bands, just reading music from those stock arrangements by Count Basie and the Benny Goodman band.  Max played with another group, and we became friends going to school.

TP:    Did the big bands play in Brooklyn?  Did Basie or Ellington or Lunceford play the Paramount Theater?

PAYNE:  Every now and then, if I was lucky enough, I could hear Count Basie up at Bedford Avenue and Atlantic in Brooklyn.  And I stayed by that bandstand all night.

TP:    So you could watch Lester Young.

PAYNE:  [LAUGHS] His horn was green!  In between the keys, man, it was all green.  But the sound that came out was something else.  Nobody had    a sound like Lester Young, man.  Paul Quinichette tried to imitate him.  But his sound changed after a while, too.  Lester got a new horn, and his sound was different.

TP:    So you’re coming up playing on alto, and switched to baritone.  But that beat, the chick-boom beat, is the beat of jazz and has been since you started playing.

PAYNE:  No, it’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and all them.  That’s the jazz beat.  That ain’t from my time.  That’s the start of jazz.

TP:    It’s the continuity.  So the record begins with you stating that this is jazz.  Then “Ding-A-Ling.”

PAYNE:  That’s a Lester Young tune called “Jive At Five.”  I tried to modernize it a little bit.

TP:    It made me think of the way Illinois Jacquet might treat it, then I realized that you’d played with Illinois Jacquet.

PAYNE:  He’s like a father to me, although he’s only one year older than I am.

TP:    You were with him for three years at the turn of the ’50s.

PAYNE:  Well, I played with Roy Eldridge in 1946. That’s when Dizzy heard me.  He came to hear the Roy Eldridge Band, and he was looking for a baritone player.  That was a lucky day for me.

TP:    When Dizzy heard you, you were familiar with him, I guess.

PAYNE:  In 1943, I went into the Army for three years.  I was stationed at Camp Ellis in Peoria, Illinois, for about a year-and-a-half, then I went to Europe.  At first I was in the 520th Trucking Regiment, because I had a license.  I didn’t have any union card.  Then I was in the 1333 Engineers.  When the war was over in Europe, we went straight to Okinawa, and they had a band there that I got into.  When I came out of the Army, I was a Sergeant in the 219 Army Ground Force Band.

TP:    So you were 20 when you went in the Army. [19] Before you went in, you were playing around Brooklyn.

PAYNE:  I played with Clarence Berry’s Big Band, and I played with Max Roach’s group in the 78th Street Taproom on Broadway playing parts.

TP:    Oh, you played at Georgie Jay’s Taproom?

PAYNE:  Yeah, with Allen Tinney and me and Gaskin…

TP:    But you were in the Army when Bird came in and played with them.

PAYNE:  Bird came in one night and played my horn.

TP:    So that’s the first time you met Bird.

PAYNE:  Yes.  But he wasn’t famous then or nothing.  He just came and played it.

TP:    Do you have a memory of that?

PAYNE:  Well, anybody who played solo was better than I was, because I couldn’t solo at all.

TP:    I’ve heard Max Roach talk about that, that he had the gig at Georgie Jay’s, then they’d pack up and go to Minton’s, so they’d wind up playing 12 hours in two different clubs.

PAYNE:  Oh, Max got around a lot.  I got to go uptown.  He got me out of Brooklyn.

TP:    So when you got out of the Army…

PAYNE:  When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe, who had an after-hour house where we used to go down… That’s where I heard Bird play.  When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe said, “I get all my boys that come out of the Army jobs.”  He said, “Go down and speak to Roy Eldridge; he’s looking for an alto player.”  When I went down there, Roy Eldridge said, “I’m sorry, man.  I just hired an alto player.”  Believe it or not, the alto player was Sahib Shihab.  So I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished playing Roy Eldridge said, “Where can I find a baritone player?”  I said, “I’ve got a baritone.”  He said, “Bring it tomorrow.”  I had a baritone that I played with Clarence Berry when I was 15, and it was (?) because I only played three notes on it — A-G-E.  Leonard Gaskin said, “It sure would sound good if we had a baritone to play those notes.”  So my father bought me a baritone sax.  $45.  In those days that was a whole lot of money.  Clarence Berry just led the band; he didn’t play.

TP:    So you wound up playing baritone with Roy Eldridge because he needed a baritone player.

PAYNE:  We played two weeks on 52nd Street, in Clark Monroe’s club.

TP:    That was the Spotlite, that club that Clark Monroe fronted.

PAYNE:  That’s it.  Dizzy came in to see Roy Eldridge, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy.  He was working up there.  Back then it was rehearsal.  When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing.  Bill Graham was playing.  I was scared.  I was going to go home because I heard the band playing.  Anyhow, Bill Graham said, “If he told you to come down, stay, man!”  When I went on the bandstand, Bill Graham gave me a uniform jacket, and we sat down there.  Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and when I read the music, they were saying, “Oh, man!”  Then I took a solo in B-flat, like “I Got Rhythm.”  I couldn’t play much else.  In those days I wasn’t… You played chords, but you didn’t play chord changes.  Anyhow, I played the solo, and everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.  They were happy.  But Bill Graham gave me (?).

TP:    So you joined Dizzy after Dizzy debuted at the Spotlite.  The way Moody tells the story, he joined Dizzy in the mid-summer of ’46 when they were at the Spotlite, the club that Clark Monroe was fronting.  You joined Dizzy after Moody had already joined the band, in late ’46, and you took the first solo people really remember was “Stay On It.”

PAYNE:  Well, my first tune, my claim to fame, was “Ow!”  They called me like the first bebop baritone player.

TP:    What do you think of that?

PAYNE:  Well, do you remember Serge Chaloff?  You ever hear him play?  He was playing like that before I ever joined Dizzy.

TP:    You must have heard Jack Washington and Harry Carney.

PAYNE:  Of course.  But I wasn’t playing the baritone then.

TP:    Were there any stylistic models for you on baritone, or were you winging it and figuring it out as you went along?

PAYNE:  The only influence was listening to Lester Young’s solos.  I bought every record that came out.  I learned every note, every solo.

TP:    So you know every Lester Young solo by heart.

PAYNE:  Mostly, yes.  Me and Lee Konitz!

TP:    Then “You Will Be Mine Tonight” is your tune?  It’s a nice ballad.  When did you write it?

PAYNE:  Not too long ago.  Last year.  I was playing with someone, an alto player a good friend who I’d known since the Army days.  He’s the one who got me into the band when I was in the Army.  I heard the band walking down playing “Reveille,” and when I’d look at them… Vincent (?).  He was playing alto in the band and he took me into it.  Anyhow, after we came out of the Army, we played in a band (I can’t remember who), and we went on the road, and he had his girlfriend with him.  We stayed in separate rooms.  They were in the room one night, and you’d hear him chasing his girl around the room.  He would say, “I will have you tonight!  I will have you tonight.”  So when I wrote this tune, I tried to think of him.

TP:    You made it sound much more romantic than that.

PAYNE:  Well, I changed the words.  I said, “You will be mine tonight.”  I couldn’t put “I Will Have You Tonight.”

TP:    On “Bosco”, midway through your solo, you quoted “Taxi War Dance.”

PAYNE:  “Bosco” is my stepson’s name here in Camden.  I got married in 1970, and my stepson’s nickname is Bosco.

TP:    That sounds like some of the things you did with Duke Jordan, like “Scotch Blues” and things like that.

PAYNE:  I played with Duke and K.D. for years.  We played together all the time.

TP:    You were very close to K.D., too.

PAYNE:  Yes.  He lived right there in Brooklyn, too.  He had six daughters.  Miles had five children.  Max has a whole lot of children, too.  And believe it or not, I don’t have any children, man.  I have a stepson.

I started writing way back.  Everybody started getting their own music together.  So I started getting tunes together.  I didn’t actually play them until I went to Europe.

TP:    About how many tunes would you say you have copyrighted?

PAYNE:  I have a whole lot of tunes.  I don’t know how many.  Don Sickler has them.  Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet recorded two of my tunes.  I did them in collaboration with another fellow, whose name I forget.  He’s the one who got me to write the tunes with him.

TP:    Were you playing in Latin bands in the ’50s, or did that start when you went with Machito in the early ’60s?

PAYNE:  It started with Machito.

TP:    Of course you played with Chano Pozo.

PAYNE:  Right, with Chano Pozo.  But Dizzy didn’t play with no Latin beat.  We were just playing swing.  But Machito was when I started playing with Latin bands.  Their beat is unmistakable!  The timbales keep the downbeat, the bass plays 3/4.  You can play the same thing on jazz, but you have to turn the beat around.  They have their own beat.  Jazz is different.  It fits, but you have to change that beat around to synchronize it.  You can’t play a Latin beat with a jazz beat.  You have to play the Latin beat on another beat to make it sound right.

TP:    So you played with Machito for three years, and then Woody Herman.

PAYNE:  I had stopped playing and went into the real estate business, trying to sell real estate.  But I couldn’t sell anybody anything, man.  I didn’t care about it.

TP:    So you did that in the ’50s, and when you decided to get back into music is when you joined Machito and Woody Herman?

PAYNE:  It was 1958 or ’59.  I actually had stopped playing, but I did work with Machito, and then I had this thing with the Broadway production of The Connection with Kenny Drew.  I didn’t (?) into jazz at that time.

TP:    The scene was changing then, too.

PAYNE:  Yes.  Because in 1957 Coltrane changed everything!

TP:    So after “Bosco” we have “Here’s That Rainy Day.” You play flute.

PAYNE:  I’m still trying to play the flute.  But whoever wrote the tune, the last tune he hits is a minor chord, and I said, “If I record this tune, I’m not going to play a minor chord.”  The minor chord makes it sound real down.  It’s the same thing with “I Should Care.”  When I play that tune, if it wasn’t for the last bar, I wouldn’t even have thought about the tune.

TP:    Are you a big fan of singers?

PAYNE:  I’m a big fan of singers, but not playing with them.

TP:    The last tune is those “Lover” changes, with “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge.  Racehorse.  Great set-closer.  That’s one of the tunes people liked to play.

PAYNE:  Well, Bird played that.

My lucky day was when I got hooked up with those young folks, man.  One thing before you leave.  When Joe Farnsworth was 27, it was his birthday, and he said to me, “Man, Cecil, I’m 27 years old, man!”  I said, “What the heck are you telling me that for?  I’m 72.”

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Filed under Baritone Saxophone, Cecil Payne, Interview, Liner Notes

For David Murray’s 57th Birthday, a Jazziz Article From 2007 and a DownBeat Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

David Murray turned 57 a few days ago; he’ll be in NYC next week to present his latest project, a big band collaboration with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, a partner on various projects over the last 35 years. I’ve appended a feature piece that I wrote about Murray in 2008 for Jazziz, framed around the release of Banished, and also a Blindfold Test from the early ’00s.

* * *
“I’ve always been around poets,” said David Murray, in New York City in January to play the Knitting Factory with his quartet. “They bare their soul so much. When I get my hands on a good poem, I can see the music jumping off the page. The word is powerful.”

Recently arrived from his home in Paris, Murray was having a pre-gig dinner at Chez Josephine. The walls of the West 42nd Street bistro are festooned with photographs and memorabilia of Josephine Baker, the famous African-American dancer-chanteuse out of St. Louis, who sailed to Paris in 1925, at 18, and transformed herself into a staple of French popular culture. After the second world war, she adopted a dozen impoverished French orphans, one of them the proprietor, who reinforces a tone of soulful Francophilia, both with the menu — fried chicken and collard greens share pride of place with snails and bouillabaisse — and the entertainment, provided by an elderly black woman in her Sunday best singing to her own piano accompaniment and a woman of similar vintage blowing melodies and obbligatos on trumpet.

Murray and his pianist, Lafayette Gilchrist, sat near the piano, facing Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife and manager, and Jim West, who runs Justin Time Records, which recently issued Sacred Ground, Murray’s 10th release for the label. On Sacred Ground, Murray and his Black Saint Quartet stretch out on seven songs — on two, Cassandra Wilson sings lyrics by Ishmael Reed — that the leader wrote for the soundtrack of Banished. The PBS documentary film, which premiered in February, examines three towns in Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas from which residents of African descent were forceably removed during the years after Reconstruction, and which remain lily-white today.

Banished is the most recently realized of an ambitious series of projects, all touching on Afro-diasporic themes, that Murray, 52, launched after he migrated from New York City to the City of Light in 1996 to join Malot, with whom he has two children. It follows Pushkin, a fully-staged quasi-opera, as yet unrecorded, on which Murray wrote a suite of songs to French, English, Creole, and Bantu translations of texts by the immortal Russian poet, himself the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince. During his dozen years of self-imposed exile, Murray, among other things, has composed big band and string music for Cuban ensembles, and created repertoire for bands comprised of musicians from Guadeloupe (CreoleYonn-de, and Gwotet, Senegal (Fo Deuk Revue), and the Black American Church (Speaking in Tongues). Later that evening at the Knitting Factory, he intended to touch base with poet Amiri Baraka, the librettist of “Sisyphus Syndrome,” scheduled to open on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday, for which Murray had as yet completed only five of 15 songs. In two days, he would fly to Cuba, to audition a string ensemble to perform as-yet-to-be written arrangements for a proposed celebration of Nat “King” Cole with Cassandra Wilson.

After ordering the fried chicken, Murray took his glass of vin rouge to a quieter spot at the front of the bar. “Next week I’m going to be writing like crazy,” he said. “But the deadlines keep me motivated. It’s like Duke Ellington said, ‘If I want to get something finished, all I need is a deadline.’ But between Banished and Sisyphus, I have music to play with my quartet for the next two years.”

In the summer of 2006, Banished director Marco Williams, a Murray fan since the saxophonist’s New York glory days in the ’80s, contacted Malot about Murray’s availability and sent a two-hour rough cut to Paris. “He wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to use me, but I forced myself upon him,” Murray said. “I stopped everything else I was doing, didn’t wait for nobody to give me no money, started writing songs, and had Valerie tape them and send them to him over the Internet.”

“It was a challenging process,” Williams relates. “David is not someone who’s going to write notes that hit a certain cut. Frankly, I couldn’t tell whether the music was going to work or not. But I wanted a collaborator, not someone just to score the film. And it was completely evident that David got the movie, it meant something to him, and he wanted to express something. The music was so beautiful, so evocative. I told my editors, ‘We’ll just get all the stems, and cut down as needed.’”

“Basically, this is ethnic cleansing,” Murray elaborated. “You see that monster, you got to cut the head off. My way of trying to cut the head off was to send him tunes.”

Without much prodding, Murray revealed that the film’s particulars resonated with his own family’s experience.

“Most black people who know their family history talk about how they got ran off,” he said. “We don’t know the terms ‘banished’ or ‘ethnic cleansing.’ We say, ‘We got ran off.’ When a town decides it don’t need you no more, that’s just how it is.” Murray cited his maternal grandfather, George Hackett, a sharecropper who went to Midland, Texas, and struck oil. “They ran him off the property, but he managed to sell his oil rights, and moved to California,” he said. “He was very enterprising. He went north to the Bay Area, but that was too far. A black man at that time couldn’t do nothing with the sea. Then he remembered he’d seen cotton in Fresno. He knew cotton, so he turned around to go where the produce was. He bought a block in Fresno, called Hackett Flats. It still has that name, and I own property on that plot.”

By Murray’s account, his paternal grandfather, a Nebraskan, was less fortunate, leaving his wife six months pregnant with Murray’s father when he fell from a scaffold in a gusting wind. Born in 1925 and full-grown in 1940, David Murray, Sr. hopped a train from Nebraska to Los Angeles, started a body and fender shop near Central Avenue, sent for his mother and older brother, and at 17, lied about his age and joined the Navy. Decommissioned in 1946, he moved to the Bay Area, tried out for the San Francisco 49ers, even joined the circus as an acrobat, but then returned to body-and-fender work, raised his family, and played guitar at church in a band with his wife, sons, and two nephews. Murray played bongos, but for one evening’s gathering, having just received an alto saxophone from his junior high school band director, Phil Hardiman, he brought his new possession.

“I didn’t know jack-shit, just squeaked and squawked,” he says. “I probably sounded a little like I do now, but now I actually know what I’m doing. It was like, ‘Wow, that young Murray is exuberant. He’s got a lot of energy.’ Then a couple of weeks later, ‘He’s starting to learn the songs now. Oh, yeah!’ I knew the melodies because my mother was always playing them. You can say that I am an on-the-job training type of guy.”

Physically mature like his father during high school, Murray, who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, starred as a football tailback, got good grades, and earned money playing music. “I was always a leader,” he said. “From 13, I was bringing money home to give to my dad. We won a youth contest to play all the Shakey’s pizza parlors in the Bay Area. We had a gig every weekend for three years. We’d do any song, like ‘A Taste of Honey,’ and I’d improvise, not even knowing that I was playing jazz. Then I began to learn it. I’d heard Sonny Rollins play a solo saxophone concert at the Greek Theater, and he was a mighty influence. That’s when I started playing tenor. Later I had a funk group called the Notations of Soul, one of the tight bands in town. We played all the dances and proms. We played a lot of James Brown, of course. They started calling me ‘Murray-O,’ after Maceo Parker.”

During Murray’s teens, post-bop titans like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw settled in the Bay Area, but Murray — who was slowing down Coleman Hawkins LPs to 16 r.p.m to analyze his solos — opted for the freedom principle, particularly the high-intensity post-Coltrane direction emblemized by Albert Ayler, himself a son of the sanctified church with early R&B experience. On a tip from trombonist Ray Anderson, whom he met during a successful audition for a horn section, Murray matriculated at Pomona College in Clarement, CA., and spent the next few years refining his craft with the likes of Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Butch Morris, all regulars at informal sessions at the house of Stanley Crouch, then a playwright, poet, and professor on the Claremont faculty, and a  drummer under the sway of Sunny Murray.

In 1975, Murray moved to New York City, sharing a loft with Crouch over the Tin Palace, an ultra-hip bar on the Bowery.

“All my Dad said was, ‘Just go out there and make some money — you’ll get good,’” Murray said. He followed that advice, performing as a peer of such A-list outcat elders as Sunny Murray, Don Pullen, and Lester Bowie, as well as Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett, his future partners in the World Saxophone Quartet. In 1979, he assembled an octet, hiring the likes of Olu Dara, Anthony Davis, George Lewis, and Henry Threadgill. As the ’80s progressed he gigged frequently with two quartets, one a boisterous harmolodic unit with Blood Ulmer, the other a quartet with hardcore jazz masters like pianist John Hicks, bassists Fred Hopkins and Ray Drummond, and the iconic drummers Edward Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille. He also led ad hoc encounters with Randy Weston, Jack DeJohnette, and Milford Graves, and conceived elaborate homages to such heroes as Hawkins and Paul Gonsalves.

“I figured out that I could actually call the best musicians in the world and they’d show up, that I’d have one of the best bands just by hiring the best rhythm sections,” Murray said. “They taught me how to play. But I became a man in the World Saxophone Quartet. I’d be saying too much about myself if I said I was their equal when we began. But after five years, my sound started getting bigger. Finally, I became their contemporary — and they let me know it.”

Murray attracted a worldwide fan base through the lyric swagger and raw edge of his tonal personality. He drew criticism from many ’80s “young lions,” who attacked him as a poseur, suggesting that his predisposition to blast off to the outer partials stemmed less from an independent aesthetic decision than insufficient grounding in the tropes of tradition. As Crouch, who had championed Murray during the ’70s, joined forces with Wynton Marsalis to establish the Jazz at Lincoln Center juggernaut, Murray was unceremoniously deleted from the mainstream conversation. He recorded ever more prolifically, for multiple labels, and toured regularly with his various ensembles, but he was falling into a rut, and his rambunctious lifestyle was beginning to take a toll.

“I was troubled, and I needed to leave,” Murray recalls. “I had Paris in my sights.” For one thing, Paris was a magnet for African musicians. For another, Malot, who grew up in North Africa and whose sister’s husband, Klod Klavue, is a master Gwo-Ka drummer from Guadeloupe, understood — and through her booking and production experience was in a position to actualize — Murray’s desire “to get closer to my African roots and do a little personal research” on them by traveling to and performing with “groups of people in Senegal, in Ghana, in South Africa, in Cuba I’d met that I could relate to.”

“Jazz has the primal feeling of African drums and the sophistication of the city,” Murray says. “A primal force, like [drummer] Dudu Ndiaye Rose, brings very complex rhythms. I bring the harmonies and melodies. It  makes me want to play and sweat, like praising the Lord, going into a trance and getting back to roots. I’m trying to get to the core where the musics fuse.”

Today, Murray is less enamored with Paris than he once was. (“[The French] have an attitude that gets on your nerves.”) Nonetheless, Murray finds family life a sanctuary that provides space to think and focus, to work more systematically than the distractions of the New York City allowed.

“I used to put out five albums a year; now I put one out every year or 18 months,” he says. “I worked all the time and took pretty much any gig; now I take select gigs, maybe 120 concerts a year. I’m in Paris half the time, moving around the other half.  I’m not aligning myself with the avant-garde or the bebop, I’m just David Murray. I take my kids to school at 8:30, then I exercise, and I’m home at 9:30. I write until noon, and practice the rest of the day till 6, going through my books, trying to keep my chops up and my mind open. When a project comes up, I get very serious, and don’t study nobody else’s shit but mine. That will last for three months, and then there’s no project. Then I go back to my little everyday shit.”

He’s restless, though, and perhaps another journey is imminent.“One year I’m going to take my saxophone and go around the world myself,” he said. “I’ve got to do it soon, before I’m 55. What kind of music do people make in Tibet? What are people doing in India? I want to play with them.”

* * *

David Murray Blindfold Test:

1.    Charles Mingus, “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” (from “Live at Antibes,” Atlantic, 1960/1994), Mingus, bass, composer; Booker Ervin, tenor sax; Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Ted Curson, tp.; Dannie Richmond, d. (5 stars)

That’s Mingus.  “Better Get It In Your Soul.”  I just love… I heard this on the radio in Paris the other day.  We were in a car.  Everybody said, “Who’s that guy back there?”  I said, “That’s Mingus.  He’s pushing the band on.”  He’s saying all kind of stuff.  We need people like this guy.  We need more people like him.  Is the trumpet player Lonnie Hillyer?  [It’s not Lonnie Hillyer.]  Who’s that bald-headed guy, that trumpet player?  [Ted Curson.] That’s Ted!  I could be wrong, but I get the Clifford Jordan vibe from the tenor player. [No.] So it’s Ted Curson, Eric and…goddamn, who is it?  [Well, how did you like the saxophone player?] I loved him.  It wasn’t a long solo.  He was kind of breaking up there at the top, but I liked him.  And definitely it’s before the period when George came into the band.  It couldn’t have been him.  I’m trying to think of who was in that band, because I’ve never seen that band… [Should I tell you?] No, not yet.  Because I might come up with it.  [How would you describe his sound?] What’s the characteristic of his sound?  [Warm.  A little brittle at the top.  [Do you get a sense of where he’s from?  Could you locate him geographically by his sound?] Texas. [You got it.] Texas.  I’m just trying to think who the heck it is.  What’s that tenor player…Red Conner? [No.  But this guy was under Red Conner.] Under Red Conner. [He heard that when he was young.  People say he sounded very close to Red Conner.] That’s a very good hint.  Under Red Conner.  And this guy is still around. [No, he died.] Oh, boy.  Texas.  Who’s from Texas.  He sounds like a few different people to me.  That’s why I thought it might have been Clifford, because of the way he started that solo.  Because Clifford always had that restraint, then you’d wait for him to bust it, then he finally busts it at the end.  To me, that’s Clifford.  When I was playing with the Mingus All Star Big Band on that record we did in Paris, I was sitting between Clifford and…who’s that alto player, that guy who’s riding on the horse… He did like one of them slick tunes.  I can’t remember his name.  He teaches at University of San Francisco. [Not John Handy.] Handy.  I was sitting between Clifford and Handy.  Damn, this guy is dead, huh? [For many years.] From Texas.  The only guy he sounds like to me… [AFTER] Goddammit.  I love Booker.  Man, I love him.  I should have got that. {How about the Mingus band?  Did it have an impact on you?] I heard that a lot.  In fact, that… [Your octet reminds me of that sort of feeling.] Sure, of course.  Because I love Mingus’ music.  My son is named Mingus!  That kind of explains things, too.  Just having those three horns or however many horns he’s got, and me having five horns, you get a balance… You could go many ways, especially if you have at least five horns up there.  It could go so many different ways.  Mingus taught me that, how you could try to make a small or middle sized band sound sometimes like a big band, sometimes like a small group, have that flexibility.  Booker Ervin, what a beautiful player. [You have to give stars.] On a recording like this, it’s stood the test of time.  It’s got to be a 5.  Of course.

2.    Charles Lloyd, “Homage” (from “Voice In The Night,” ECM, 1998), Lloyd, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. (4 stars)

He’s got that Trane thing happening.  Coltrane influenced a lot of people, man.  The guitar, that’s interesting.  I wasn’t expecting the guitar.  Man, there was like a budding genius… I forget his name.  He played tenor and guitar and piano.  Remember that guy?  He died. [Arthur Rhames.] Arthur Rhames. [It’s not him, though.] But he had Trane down, though.  Is tenor his only instrument? [He plays flute, soprano, but primarily tenor.] Wow.  [He was very well known thirty years ago.] Is he still alive? [He’s still alive.  This is a recent record.] This guy did an album of Billy Strayhorn… [Oh, Joe Henderson.  It’s not Joe.] It don’t sound like Joe. You got me on this Bay Area thing, though.  Who the hell was this… I got out of the Bay Area so fast.  As soon as I got out of high school, I was gone. [Should I tell you?] No, let me hear it out. [You might want to think about who the drummer is, too.] [MIMICKING THE STROKES] Sounds like Billy Higgins.  [It’s a studio band, though they did tour.] He just loved Coltrane, whoever the hell he is!  But everybody loved Coltrane when I was growing up. [Where does he sound like he’s from?] Is this guy really old? [Not really old? [Not really old.  The generation right before us.] Who’s this tenor player, he plays a lot in the studio… He had the same piano teacher who I studied with.  He’s from the Bay Area, but he wouldn’t be the next generation before us.  He would be 25 years before me.  But he doesn’t sound like him.  Tell me. [AFTER] Charles Lloyd!  That’s Charles.  He had that Trane thing down.  I love Charles Lloyd. I guess he was in the Bay Area, but I always thought he was hanging out in L.A.  Yeah, that’s the second time I’ve been stumped by Charles Lloyd.  They played a piece for me in Japan one time, and all I could think of was John Coltrane.  But that lets you know how well he absorbed the Coltrane legacy.  He doesn’t necessarily sound like Coltrane that much now.  But during that period he was certainly all over. [Well, that was the one piece on the album that was in Coltrane’s style.  How many stars?] I’d have to give it at least 4 stars, because Billy’s back there playing and boppin’, and I’ll leave off one for creativity perhaps.  How can I say it… Coltrane is such a large figure that… Can’t nobody do it like Coltrane.  I don’t care who you are.  That’s why, in my explorations of Coltrane, I tried to stay away from trying to sound like him, because that’s too easy.  All the notes are written somewhere.  When he studied Coltrane, I’m sure he absorbed it mostly from the records.  In old times, you could slow it down and put it on 16 and get the solo, and then speed it back up.  But now you’ve got all these Coltrane transcriptions.  I have a book over here with all of the different versions of “Giant Steps,” transcriptions of just “Giant Steps”…

3.    Michael Brecker, “Freedom of Expression” (from Milton Cardona, “Cambucha,” American Clave, 1999), Michael Brecker, ts; Milton Cardona, shekeres, doo-wop vocals; Sergio Cardona, percussion (bells). (3½ stars)

Doo-wop with like the shekere, an African kind of thing — that’s nice!  That’s creative.  I want the tenor player to play more.  When was the recording made? [’99.] My first reaction would be… I know it’s not James Carter.  What’s that guy?  Who are some of the new guys… Whoever it is, they like me.  I mean, I don’t know if they LIKE me, but they’re influenced by me. [That’s questionable.] Well, I hear it.  [This guy is older than us.] Well, then it is questionable. [And he was very prominent when you came to New York.  Although in a different area.  Do you know who the shekere player was?] He’s an old guy.  Chief Bey. It sounds like him on those shiko drums, that low drum.  Can you play it again for me? It was so sparse, I could never get a fluidity thing. [I think that was in the arrangement.] Probably so. [Because it wasn’t his arrangement.  He was playing someone else’s concept.  I’ll give you a hint.  This is a Kip Hanrahan project, and Milton Cardona is playing shekere.] Oh, Milton, yeah!  He has a strident kind of tone; maybe it’s the recording.  Is this guy alive? [Oh yeah.] [AFTER] I would have never got that.  I like Michael Brecker.  He can play his ass off.  But it’s not something that I listen to often. [I was playing that because you’ve done so many things with African rhythms.] It’s interesting.  I like the doo-wop part of it.  He always comes up with good ideas. [It was Milton Cardona’s project, and they used him.] I’ve never consciously listened to Michael other than I used to hear him play sometimes at Seventh Avenue South through the wall, because I used to live through the wall there.  I like him, but I would never have named him.  3½ stars.

4.    Von Freeman, “Solitude” (from “Never Let Me Go,” Steeplechase, 1992), Freeman, ts.; Jodie Christian, piano; Eddie DeHaas, bass; Wilbur Campbell, drums. (5 stars)

Ah, this is “Solitude.”  He has a nice touch.  Is he from Chicago? [Yes, he is.] Sounds like Von to me.  You know, that motherfucker is so bad.  I was in a bar… He plays at the Apartment Lounge I think every Tuesday night or whichever night of the week.  But whenever I’m there, it’s a must to go hear Von, because he’s one of the last great tenor players.  See, I have a problem in general with… Certain people’s sounds stick in your head, because it really is their own.  That’s probably why I got this one and didn’t get the others.  I hear parts of people in other people’s sounds, but I hear pure Von.  That’s him, man.  He’s great.  It’s just the way that people from Chicago play.  When you hear Johnny Griffin, there’s a certain kind of distinctiveness between the beat.  He’s going to fit as many notes, but it’s the way he lands that makes you know it’s him. [SINGS SUPERSONIC GRIFFIN PHRASE] Damn!  How’d you get all those notes in that couple of beats there.  Incredible.  I’ll give that 5 stars for being Von, for all of the things he’s done and all of the people he has influenced, including his son, who is also great.

5.    Charles Gayle, “Touchin’ on Trane, Part B” (from “Touchin’ on Trane,” FMP, 1991), Gayle, ts.; William Parker, bass; Rashied Ali, drums.

Sounds like Frank Wright.  Is it that guy who used to play with Cecil?  You know the guy who does those festivals… [William Parker.] Is that William?  [Yes, that’s William.] [AFTER RAISING HIS EYES] I keep making these facial expressions because… Maybe it’s David Ware or somebody.  I don’t know.  [Not David Ware.] I don’t want to be negative, but I… Let me not be negative. [Be constructive.] What’s that guy that used to be homeless? [Charles Gayle.  That’s who it is.] He wears a clown suit sometimes.  In Europe, Sunny Murray did a gig with him, and he said he was wearing a clown suit.  There’s a struggle that you can do when you play with your horn.  When it’s not really relaxed, it sounds like you’re fighting your horn or something like that.  That’s why I keep grimacing, is because I’m not hearing the fluidity.  But what I do hear, I like the mood of the piece.  I like what William Parker is doing.  Let me think about who the drummer is now.  It’s somebody I played with.  That’s Andrew, it sounds like. [No.] I don’t know. [It’s Rashied Ali.] Rashied, okay.  It’s hard to tell who’s playing when they play brushes.  He knows how to play the brushes.  I’ve got to give it 3 stars.

6.    Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge” (from “Ben Webster with Strings,” Verve, 1954/1995), Ben Webster, ts; Billy Strayhorn, piano, arr.) (5 stars)

That beautiful string arrangement that Billy did.  You know, I did a string arrangement kind of based on his string arrangements when I did the Ellington thing this past summer.  We had a big band, plus we had 20 strings with 2 harps.  So I kind of listened to what Billy had done with the arrangement he did for Ben. It’s beautiful, so I took that and tried to add to it.  I had 20 strings.  He only had a couple.  But it sounded like a lot of strings; it sounded great.  That’s the way the saxophone is supposed to be played.  There’s no struggle.  It’s like he’s having a conversation with you.  Now, in the Billy Strayhorn book, he said that Ben was kind of proud of Billy, and he kind of took care of him like a little… I can see that happening, because he LOVED him, because he knew how great he was.  They appreciated one another for their music.  That’s what I aspire to be. [LAUGHS] I want to be just like that when I grow up.  Shit, man, this is pure music.  And it’s not the genre even.  No, it’s not the genre.  Like, the last thing… Well, I don’t want to go back.  They could have been playing anything.  But it’s just the way that you hold that horn, the way you use it as your form of expression, it’s almost like you love it… Do you love it, or is it just a piece, a thing that you use to spit through?  Do you love it?  He loves that horn!  Shit.  I don’t know if you were around when I did that string concert at the Public Theater years ago.  I did all ballads.  I think I had 14 strings.  That was one of my most successful concerts, because people were actually weeping in the concert.  I wasn’t weeping, but I had a little funny reaction, and then a couple of years after that this family comes up to me on the street and there’s this little baby, and they said, “You know, we have to thank you, because our son was conceived that night you played this concert; it made us really fall in love.”  I did my job!  To me that was the highest compliment that anybody ever paid.  And Ben and Bird with Strings… Every saxophone player has to realize his potential in playing in front of the strings.  I think it’s a wonderful. [So I don’t need to ask you how many stars for that.] Oh, man, if they could give more stars, they could give him the tip-top.  That one stood the test of time, jack!

7.    Eric Alexander, “Straight Street” (from “Solid,” Milestone, 1998), Alexander, ts; John Hicks, piano; George Mraz, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums. (4 stars)

This is a classic recording.  This is the one, right?  Oh, it’s a remake of it!  Oh, they got my piano player.  That’s John Hicks, for sure.  It sounds like Ray, too.  Wait.  No, that’s not Ray.  Hell, no.  He’d kill me!  Let me put my thinking cap on.  I like this one. [LAUGHS] Is that Curtis Lundy? [No.] I like his sound.  He sounds a younger guy, but with that old sound.  Whoever it is, he’s got it down.  I can’t say I know who he is.  I could take a wild guess, though.  When was this recording made? [’98.] Who are some younger tenor players?  I don’t really know who’s around. [AFTER] He sounds really good.  He sounds excellent.  I’d give it 4 stars, because it’s a remake of a legend.  I’d give it 5 if it were the real thing.  But John Hicks gets 5 stars for just being John Hicks, man!

8.    Sonny Rollins, “Cabin In The Sky” (from, “Plus 3,” Milestone, 1995),  Rollins, ts; Stephen Scott, piano; Bob Cranshaw, el. bass; Jack deJohnette, drums. 3½ stars.

I know this guy.  I don’t want to be stupid too soon.  I think I have a good idea already who it is.  It’s not who I thought it was at first.  I don’t know this guy’s name, but he is a contemporary of mine, this guy… No? [He’s older than you by a fair piece.] Is he living? [He is living.] It’s Sonny Rollins when he was going through his teeth problems.  That’s  what it sounds like.  He’s going through his teeth problem.  Because it ain’t CLASSIC Sonny.  Ah, how can I say this without being negative to Sonny.  It just sounds like he’s dealing with serious dental problems.  Let’s talk about it.  Let me say something different.  Sonny Rollins, but… Let’s just say it’s not the period of Sonny Rollins that I really, really am fond of.  I think Sonny Rollins… Sonny is such a… That’s why I was grimacing during that.  Because when you play tenor, when it’s a struggle to play certain notes for somebody that great, you know there’s something physical going on.  You can tell.  Because some of the notes that he was struggling with, somebody with regular dental work wouldn’t have.  So it probably was during the period of time when something like that was happening.  Well, I loved it!  It’s Sonny Rollins.  I love Sonny Rollins.  I mean, I love him for being Sonny Rollins.  That’s not one of his best recordings, I would say.  3½ stars.  He’s going to kill me.

9.    Sam Rivers/Tony Hymas, “Glimpse” (from “Winter Garden,” NATO, 1998), Rivers, tenor sax; Hymas, piano. (5 stars)

Whoever this is, they have a very nice sound.  You know, the saxophone is the kind of instrument, when it buzzes, you know you’ve got something.  When you don’t hear that buzz, you get a flat sound.  It’s too straight.  This horn has got a buzz.  It’s alive.  He knows his horn.  Now let me figure out who it is.  Is he from this continent? [Yes.] I like the tune.  It’s beautiful. [The saxophone player wrote it.] It’s great.  He’s a good writer.  It’s got that real international kind of sound.  I’m not quite sure who it is. [He was also very prominent in your scene when you got to New York, and he was already in it.] Oh.  In my scene.  [Or parallel.  And he’s old enough to be your father.] Okay. [And you’ll kick yourself if you don’t know who it is.] I will kick myself.  Who’s the brother who teaches in upstate New York… [Not him.] Play me a little more.  I don’t want to be kicked by myself.  I love it.  Whoever it is, I really dig it. [PLAY “Impulse”] My father is almost 75 years. [That’s how old he was when he made this.] Incredible.  Is it Sam Rivers?  He’s the only guy it could be!  Sam Rivers is such a great person.  He gave me my first gig in New York.  It sounded like somebody who just knew… He’s probably forgotten more shit than most people know.  It sounded like somebody like that.  It really helped this other tune.  I may have never gotten it with just that ballad.  That’s a beautiful song.  You know when you hear a song and it sounds like it doesn’t matter what year it was made… [It’s like Classical music.] Yeah, it’s like Classical music.  It’s always going on.  You could sing it in a different language, and it will still work. [Why did you ask if the saxophone player was from this continent?] Because at first it sounded like somebody from Brazil, like what somebody Ivo Perelman might do.  I like Ivo.  But then as it went on, it sounded like somebody more mature who has been through generations.  And when you said he was old enough to be my father and you put on the faster song, I could hear Sam’s rhythms.  Rhythmically, Sam has a different kind of expression because he’s been through so much, I guess.  His rhythm is not like Sonny Rollins, where it’s like BOM-BOM, right on your head, the way he attacks.  He’s snake-like; he kind of slides through.  But he’s got that sound.  God bless Sam Rivers, man.  I hope he lives to be 100.  I’d give that tune 5 stars.

10.    David Sanchez, “Lamento Borincano” (from “Obsesión,” Columbia, 1998), Sanchez, tenor sax; Edsel Gomez, piano; John Benitez, bass; Adam Cruz, drums; Richie flores, Pernell Saturnino, percussion.  (4 stars).

Is it a recent recording? [Yes.] Everybody loves Coltrane, man!  He’s probably the most quoted tenor player since Bird, I guess.  I take it these are Spanish musicians. [Hispanic-American, U.S.-based.  But mostly from Puerto Rico.] I’ll just take a guess that it’s David Sanchez or somebody like that.  One time this guy had a funny idea to do a Three Davids —  David Murray, David Sanchez and  Fathead! It was funny, man.  People run out of themes sometimes.  So we did this thing.  And it was nice.  We did it with an organ player.  I kind of remember his sound from there.  I kind of like David Sanchez.  He’s still young.  He’s got a ways to go.  But he’s going to be one of the great ones.  I think in about two years he’ll be where he wants to be.  It takes time to be… You’re thrown in there, and there’s this big fray in New York, and they expect you to be great already.  And I’m sorry, it just doesn’t… I didn’t get my own sound til I was about 28, and I feel like I got it early. [So you feel you didn’t get your own sound until about ’83-’84.] Something like that.  I had to absorb all this stuff around me, people saying this about me, they’re writing about, “Oh yeah, you’re the next blah-blah-blah.”  What the hell, I don’t know, man.  I’m trying to play my horn.  So David Sanchez, he’s getting a lot of recognition, but at the same time, this is a young man.  Give the guy a chance to develop.  He’ll be good.  I’ll give it 4 stars.

11.    Paul Gonsalves/Sonny Stitt, “Perdido” (from “Salt and Pepper,” Impulse, 1963/1997) Gonsalves, Sonny Stitt ts; Hank Jones, p.; Milt Hinton, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. (4½ stars)

It’s two tenor players.  Paul sounds different than before he really got plastered! [You think this is before or after?] This is before.  When he gets really plastered… Here I am going negative again.  But before he’s really libated…he slips and slides even more when he… Before that, he sounds more like a normal tenor player.  You know what I’m saying?  when he plays his little figures.  But when he gets plastered, he sounds like he’s in his own zone.  And I hate to say it for the youngsters, but the guy sounds good when he’s plastered! [LAUGHS] I don’t know!  It’s like no abandon, just pure… I love Paul.  He’s my favorite tenor player, man.  This is definitely pre.  He seems pretty sober here. [Then you have to figure out the other one.] Let me see who’s in the right here.  Paul is in the left.  This is like a separate recording from an Ellington project.  This is not an Ellington project at all.  They both sound wonderful.  That’s all I know.  He’s not an Ellington tenor player. [No.] Not at all. [Not at all.] This is from a whole nother zone. [He had his career as a hired gun.] Okay!  With the correctness of the way he plays, it sounds like it could only be Sonny Stitt.  What comes to mind is the Sonny Rollins-Sonny Stitt thing with Dizzy where they both play their ass off, then Dizzy ends up smokin’ them both!  You’re not going to find two better tenor players on the planet anywhere than Paul Gonsalves and Sonny Stitt. [Any idea who the piano player is?] Let me hone in.  Is he alive? {The piano player is alive.  He’s an elderly guy now, but this was 40 years ago.] [AFTER] I couldn’t really get his left hand, but I should have figured that was Hank Jones.  I played with Hank once in a tenor battle in 1978 at the Northsea Jazz Festival in the Hague.  It was Archie Shepp, Lockjaw, Fathead.  Hank Mobley got sick and I took his place.  Illinois Jacquet was running the session.  Hank Jones was on piano and Max Roach on drums and Wilbur Little on bass.  That’s when everybody in Europe recognized me and said I hung pretty good with the old guys.  So that was my moment.  I’d say 4½ stars for this, only because I’ve heard Paul play better, I guess maybe for the reasons I mentioned!  I don’t know why.  But it passed the test of time again.

12.    Branford Marsalis, “Attainment” (from Jeff Watts, “Citizen Tain,” Columbia, 1998), Marsalis, ts; Kenny Kirkland, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Watts, drums. (5 stars)

Is it one drummer?  I like the tone of the sax player.  I’m waiting for them to get into it.  It’s nice how they got into it finally, like a lilt kind of.  [4 minutes.] I’m not quite sure who this is, but the spirituality of it is something that I can sort of relate to.  Is this a young player, or an older one? [A little younger than you; not too much.] Sounds good, though. [He’s someone you have encountered over the years.  You’ve had a dialogue.] A word dialogue? [I just mean a dialogue.] Oh, a dialogue.  That sounds good to me.  You mean we played together. [I’m just going to say you had a dialogue!] Okay, man.  I’m trying to figure out… It sounds familiar.  Somebody that I know.  Geez… It’s not Chico.  [Okay, you played together.] I’m trying to think what tenor players I played with.  A tenor player that I played with and is younger than me.  [Not that much younger, but definitely affiliated with a different generation than you.] Branford Marsalis.  He sounds good, man.  The spirituality comes through.  It sounds good! [So you can probably figure who the other guys were.] I guess with his band perhaps.  Jeff Tain and the brother who just passed away, Kenny Kirkland.  It was a very nice piece.  I’m impressed.  We encounter one another in Europe all the time.  He’s playing a lot of soprano.  He don’t play tenor that much on the gig.  But I admire him.  He’s a great player.  I’ll give that 5 stars because the spirituality is there, and you feel something. [That was Tain’s record, not Branford..] Tain did a good record, then.  God bless him.

13.    Joe Lovano, “Fort Worth” (from “From The Soul,” Blue Note, 1991), Lovano, tenor sax; Dave Holland, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. (4 stars)

It kind of sounds like Dewey. [Dewey’s influenced an aspect of his playing.] Dewey’s son. [No, it’s not Joshua.] Okay.  He definitely likes Dewey.  But he sounds good.  I like the composition… [Who’s the drummer?] I wasn’t even listening for that.  Give me a few more minutes, a little glimpse of the drummer.  I’ll play you the one before, a duo. [PLAY “Modern Man.”] It’s definitely not Dewey now.  He sounds completely different now to me. Is it a recent recording? [1991] I think I need a clue. [The saxophone player has become very prominent in this decade.  This was a sort of breakthrough recording for him.  And he’s a year or two older than you.] Oh, that’s great.  Gee.  A year or two older than me.  It’s not Don Braden or someone like that.  I don’t know who it is. [AFTER] Oh, I know Joe.  I should have known that.  I don’t really know his sound.  He sounds good, though.  I’ve seen him over in Holland; we were hanging out in Amsterdam.  I don’t really know his sound, so I probably would have never guessed that. [Who’s the drummer?  Do you know?] [AFTER] That’s Blackwell?  No shit.  4 stars.

14.    Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music” (“In All Languages,” Verve, 1987/1997).  Coleman, tenor sax; Don Cherry, tp.; Charlie Haden, b.; Billy Higgins, drums.

It sounds like they’re out of the Ornette Coleman school.  Which is a great school.  Sounds like Dewey to me.  Is that Dewey? [No.] That’s Ornette on tenor!  No wonder it’s out of the Ornette school! [LAUGHS] There’s one note Ornette always plays when he plays tenor.  He plays like he’s playing alto, and it just hits that note!  I think he can play any saxophone.  But I’d like to hear him play baritone one day.  He probably could play the shit out of that, too.  People have to recognize that there are… If we’re lucky enough while we’re here, we’ll come across maybe 3 or 4 geniuses whose music really is something that has a lot of influence, and Ornette is one of them.  There aren’t many of them out here now left that their concept was maybe the strongest thing… The concept supersedes even the playing itself.  That’s what brings his genius into it.  That’s why you can hear his… When he did this thing at Lincoln Center, I heard about it.  I heard it was wonderful.  I want to hear some recordings from it.  But those kinds of things Ornette is brilliant on.  We need to hear him more.  He gets 5 stars for all the abuse they’ve given him over the years

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