Murray quickly became part of the already vibrant loft jazz scene, and his early recordings are consistently hard-edged and dissonant. But where the previous generation kept pushing the boundaries, Murray and other new lions took a step inward. In Murray’s words, “I grew out of the loft jazz, but loft jazz couldn’t hold me.“I had such a dynamic quartet, and I thought it would be a shame to have people like Eddie Blackwell and Freddie Hopkins and Art Davis and Ray Drummond and John Hicks on the bandstand and not swing. It would be like some kind of sin.“I was one of the first guys to play at the Vanguard from that time from the loft jazz scene. I started playing there, and Max Gordon said, ‘Keep playing those ballads.’ After all that happened I guess people discovered I could swing and I could bring people in, and people would come out to hear me in droves.
“I might have lost fans playing different types of commercial places, but to me it added to my stature and my vitality as a musician.”
Another key New York club for Murray was Sweet Basil, where he premiered an octet and a big band, both of which featured some of the hottest musicians from that period. Even in a more straight-ahead context Murray avoided getting too comfortable.
“I had to make different kinds of records,” he explained. “I’ve had to fire great piano players. You can’t have the same piano player on every record with the same group; otherwise you’re redundant. Even the great John Hicks had to get fired.” But you continually rehired him, I said. “Of course I did,” Murray responded. “He was the greatest piano player of his era. For me, he was it.”
While discussing his career since moving to Europe, I mentioned an interview where he said journalists make it seem like he’s been twiddling his thumbs ever since—something he’s quick to refute.
“When I was in Europe, I’d come to New York every three weeks and do a recording and do some gigs,” he said. “I did three recordings in Cuba, I did one in Argentina, I finished my contract at Justin Time, and I was in New York the whole time. I’ve been doing concerts, the World Sax Quartet and all that.
“I did Fo Duck Revue in Senegal and recorded a bunch of albums in New York when I was supposedly twiddling my thumbs. I did a Pushkin opera and I did another opera with Amiri Baraka when I was supposed to be twiddling my thumbs. I did a big concert with the Roots in Paris at Jazz à la Villete, and I did The Obscure Works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.”
When asked why these projects haven’t received more attention, Murray said, “People just want you to be in New York, where they know where you are. I don’t really care if they know where I am. I know where I am.”
These days, however, Murray is spending more time in New York, and at the end of our conversation he began discussing potential upcoming releases in multiples (including both live and studio albums with El’Zabar and a new octet project), suggesting he may return to his old prolific self. It seems entirely possible that Murray could shake up the American jazz scene like he did in the 1980s. We’ll see if we can keep up with him.