Swinging on the Downtown Lights

Article excerpt

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 , 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. …