Sunny Murray has died. He was 81. The American free-jazz drummer was born James Marcellus Arthur “Sunny” Murray. His influence on free-jazz drumming – on the very idea of liberating the rhythmic constraints, of exploring textures as a drummer/percussionist – is profound.
Murray made records under his own name and with a variety of groups but his pioneering work was with Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler in particular. He also worked with Art Blakey, Archie Shepp, William Parker, Gil Evans and a host of other names. But it’s the small handful of recordings with Taylor and the dozen or so records with Ayler that are where Murray’s work is best explored and experienced.
Take a record like Spiritual Unity – or listen to the live recordings with Ayler from Denmark in the early 1960s. Here you hear a busy drummer, allowing the soloists their own space. He’s in the sound as a colourist. He’s in the sound as part of the cacophony. And through that you hear almost melodic ideas, certainly textural rather than structural. Scrapes and swipes – 101 ways to approach a cymbal.
I first heard Murray in what always feels like the best way possible – by fluke. I didn’t know what I was listening to but all of a sudden I had to know. Once I had a name to work with I was off looking for as many things as I could with his name attached. I found some of them in CD chuck-out bins for $1, I found others at home already, on records I’d owned but hadn’t yet heard – and of course I found him in the records recommended by learned jazz-playing friends. He was one of the guys you just had to hear. That’s how I came to understand him.
I’m still not sure I understand his playing – which is a big part of what keep me listening.
He had a good innings of course – at 81 – but his concepts, his thinking, his approach to playing…that’s all going to live on and strong. Those amazing records. I’m back on an Albert Ayler as I type this. And even though it was never Murray’s plan to dominate the recordings right now he is all I can hear. All I want to hear. All I’m listening out for – his snare drum rolls arriving like a peel of thunder.
R.I.P. Sunny Murray