Saturday, May 19, 2018

11/12/93: David Murray's blues

by Joe Ryan, via GDAO
This started out as a comment to JGMF's write-up of this show, but it ballooned into a full post's worth of ramblings (lucky you!).  The JGB show on 11/12/93 at Madison Square Garden featuring jazz great David Murray is a popular (or at least very well-known) show, but, while it's historically significant, I don't think it's mostly very good.  While his first time with the Dead two months earlier was outstanding (the Bird Song! the Estimated!) and his 1995 return isn't bad either, this JGB show is redeemed by one out-of-left-field standout performance that belongs on a list of highlights from the year.  Otherwise, this show overshadows some much better but lesser-known performances from '93 while prompting the question of what exactly was going on.

From the start, Murray is playing a lot of saxophone.  A lot.  During Garcia's vocals, during Garcia's solos, just all over the place.  To my ears, How Sweet It Is is a near-trainwreck and Strugglin' Man is the low point, with an unbelievable amount of crossed wires.  What the hell was going on?  Could they hear each other?  TLEO, Forever Young, and Money Honey at least start to get their ducks in a row, but Murray's playing is way over on the abstract side of things and, while the audience cheers every one of his big screaming high-note climaxes, the effect is almost surreal.  But, after strangely starting and stopping Everybody Needs Somebody (the only time I can recall hearing him do that), Garcia cranks up Lay Down Sally and the whole room lifts off -- Murray gets his blows in first, but clears the way for Garcia to take the jam way further than usual.  This is one of the most exciting performances of this tune, and definitely one of the longest.  Um, okay then!  Read into it what you will, but it's a pretty sweet note to end on after a sour first set.  I don't get any sense, however, that Murray "cut Garcia to shreds" (see below) or that Garcia was responding competitively -- rather, it's more like Murray either couldn't hear him for most of the set, or was just going for it without much care, and Garcia kind of shrugged his shoulders and let it roll, before finally belting it out at the very end.  But of course I have no idea what was really going on.

The second set is better overall, but at times it's in more of a relieved okay, things finally are starting to go right kind of way.  Depending on your tolerance for Murray's style, Shining Star is or is not kind of a mess, but there's an interesting moment when Murray's solo gets increasingly hairy and Garcia jumps in with some flurrying, high energy stuff to complement what he's doing (this starts around @7:45).  It's a neat moment where Garcia seems to be trying to make something out of a situation that has gone off into uncharted waters, but it's also one of the only moments they seem to actually be engaging with each other.  Maybe Garcia was just out of sorts: his vocals sound completely out of synch with the band on You Never Can Tell, not the first time that night he flubbed his singing, and I wonder if he wasn't also having a bit of an off-night, regardless of Murray's presence.  Murray sits out for The Maker, which provides a bit of a breath of fresh air, although it's not a particularly strong version on its own merits (they were really nailing this tune on this tour).  And then comes the moment that should have attained some real lift-off, Don't Let Go.  Modal vamps!  Open-ended spacey jamming!  Jaaazz!  Murray gets out his bass clarinet and things are sounding pretty sweet.  Garcia hoots and hollers the final round of "hold me tight and don't let go's" and stomps on his wahwah pedal right out of the gate.  The stars are aligning!  But... I dunno, it's a fine jam, but Garcia and Murray seem to just play through each other rather than with each other.  Again, I'm wondering more about the sound onstage and whether they weren't able to hook it up for more mundane reasons.  Murray drops out for a minute to switch back to his tenor sax, but Garcia skips the chance to go off into deep space and returns to the vocals instead, and I can't help thinking it was a missed opportunity all around.  Rats.  Fortunately, someone seems to have finally tapped Murray on the shoulder, because his contribution to That Lucky Old Sun is much more fitting, and he actually keeps it relatively within the lines and even plays some suitable horn riffs in the closing Tangled Up in Blue.  Garcia, again, delivers the goods at the last minute, belting out a powerful final Tangled jam that builds to a solid fanning climax that I'm sure left everyone smiling after a pretty perplexing show.

JGMF quotes Gary Lambert in his piece, who relays that no one from Garcia's camp actually told Murray what kind of music the JGB played or what the expectations were.  I can certainly believe it, but I give Murray a lot more credit than that: musicians sit in with other musicians without much advance preparation all the time, and good musicians adjust on the fly -- especially good jazz musicians, who (should) have the ears to pick up on song forms and harmonic patterns relatively quickly and improvise over them.  I don't doubt for a second that David Murray is such a musician.  Jim Powell says Murray cut Garcia to shreds that night, but I don't think so.  Murray plays and plays and plays and, well, he overplays, and imho very little of it sounds "better" than Garcia or even on the same page.  To be fair, Murray seems like he's mixed low for much of the night -- to give soundman John Cutler the benefit of the doubt, I'm sure it was a struggle working with Murray's wider dynamic range (on an acoustic instrument, in a basketball arena) and maybe Murray didn't have much monitor support... but it's also possible that Cutler was mixing him down for other reasons.  I don't know if he had played with singers or pop musicians like Branford Marsalis did, but it seems weird to me that a musician of Murray's stature and experience wouldn't have eased off the gas a bit (see this interview, particularly comment #5, for a number of things Marsalis did that Murray doesn't seem to do).  I don't think that's just because no one bothered to tell him that the JGB were essentially a rhythm & blues band.

And, lest you think I'm just not a fan of David Murray: while I can't say I've heard a lot of his work, I have several albums of his that I think are incredible (1980's Ming would be the starter) and I very much like his 1997 Dark Star album.  If you're not familiar with him outside of the Dead, Murray is one of the major jazz saxophonists of the 80's/90's, and was part of a generation of post-loft NYC avant-gardists who made the innovations of Albert Ayler and Coltrane coexist with "the tradition" that so much of the post-Coltrane players had rejected.  Like a lot of those musicians (Henry Threadgill and Arthur Blythe are two contemporaries you may know), Murray was certainly known for a particular sound but could play in a variety of styles very effectively.  To give two then-contemporary examples to consider alongside his JGB performance, try Shakill's Warrior (1991),  a "back to the roots" project revisiting the organ/tenor combos of the 50's-60's [interestingly, this band's guitarist, Stan Franks, played a few shows with the earliest Phil & Friends lineup and was originally slated to play lead guitar in the original 1998 lineup of the Other Ones, before he was replaced by Mark Karan and Steve Kimock].  Or try Murray's guest appearance on the Skatalites' recording of his own tune Flowers for Albert (1994; Murray takes the first solo). Neither of these are necessarily representative of his typical sound, but I think they show that Murray could have found something to fit the JGB's sound.  If he had wanted to boot it out like Jr. Walker on How Sweet It Is, I am confident that he could have gone there while still sounding like David Murray.

Coming soon: some of the aforementioned much better but lesser-known performances from 1993.

by Joe Ryan, via GDAO

postscript: Murray's spot with the Dead on 9/22/93 was fantastic, but when the Dead came back to the NYC area in 1994, Murray did not appear with them.  While the Dead were at Nassau Coliseum in March 1994, Murray instead sat in with a Dead cover band, the Zen Tricksters, at the Wetlands Preserve in lower Manhattan (a funny-shaped bar down by the Holland Tunnel that was the NYC jamband scene's headquarters, if you never went there) for a full 3+ hour show.  It's hard not to wonder what Murray thought about that, but I don't remember anything being wrong with the music at all.  I had the tapes way back when, and I liked them a lot -- but that was over 20 years ago, so I withhold judgment until they appear digitally at LMA.  I would love to hear that again.


  1. Awesome post!

    The rumors at the time, from the WELL, were that Garcia greatly resisted having Murray sit in again in '95, had to be cajoled and whatnot. FWIW.

    So, what's your analysis, that DM couldn't hear himself? Or that he just overplayed because ... why?

    1. Thanks! Ultimately I don't know what to make of it, which is part of why this show is intriguing rather than just bad. I'm hesitant to assert that he was inconsiderately overplaying like an inexperienced hotshot, since his jazz pedigree is so deep -- I'm inclined to look for some other explanation, but that may just be my pro-jazz bias (I'm also shying away from the idea that he was on something, or dosed, but who knows?) His style certainly lends itself to a "freer" (i.e. squonkier) approach, but imho he plays with way more engagement and sensitivity at the 9/22/93 GD show. Here it just sounds like he cranks it up and lets it rip. Even if he couldn't hear himself over the rest of the band at all, a musician of his experience would presumably know to play *less*, not more.

      I'm not surprised by that '95 rumor. I think Murray was doing a project with Bob Weir about Satchel Paige that never panned out (save for the one track on Murray's Dark Star album), so maybe that was part of his return? The '95 GD show actually isn't too bad by 94-95 standards -- Murray is in high octane squonk mode for much of it, albeit on material that better allows for it.

  2. Thanks for this post. Really enjoy your blog. Here is a story perhaps apropos to nothing at all. I joined some friends in Weir's suite after the 9/22/93 show and Murray was there. It was a pretty low key scene and I eventually found myself sitting next to Murray. When I pulled out a joint, he said "finally something to blow." We had a good rap and would eventually leave at the same time. On the street, as we were parting he said, "hey man I'll see you again soon." Two months later at the Garden he was right. I don't remember the show as discordant as it seems on tape, so YMMV.

    As for Murray not playing the next time the Dead were in town, I am not sure you can read too much into that. After Branford's transcendant set at Nassau in 1990, he didn't show up at the next NYC gigs (although he did sit in 18 months later at the Garden [5 NYC gig cycles later] and of course at NYE). but the history of the band is littered with one off guests.

    1. Thank you for the kind word, David, and thanks for sharing that story. You're right, it may be too much of a stretch to think he was purposefully not invited back in '94. I'm still a little blown away that he sat in with a Dead cover band on the same night as an actual Dead show, though.

      As for the discordance, you may be right. Based on the crowd response to most of his solos, he may have been doing something right that I'm just not hearing.