In August, I reviewed an exceptional CD of (mostly) compositions by jazz genius David Murray, played by Murray himself with trombonist Paul Zauner’s Blue Brass (Roots ‘n’ Wings). I was so impressed by Murray’s compositions and arrangements that I asked Mr. Zauner if he would like to do a brief email interview. Zauner said yes, I sent him the questions, and he forwarded them to Murray—who didn’t answer me.
I wrote back to Paul Zauner twice asking about them; He said that Murray did receive the questions and would be answering me soon…but no answers ever came. I figured the interview had fallen through, as did a previous one I had set up with composer Mohammed Fairouz.
But then, when I sent Zauner the news that Roots ‘n’ Wings had received one of my blue ribbons for a major jazz recording of the year, he told me that Murray had answered me, and sent the following to me. Although not a series of systematic answers to my questions, Murray summed up most of what I wanted to know, which was how he approaches the composing and arranging process, and put it into one long, eloquent paragraph, which I am hereby proud to share with you:
When I sit down to arrange a composition, like right now I’m working on 8 compositions for my new octet, I make sure first that I truly understand the form of the piece even if I have played it on many gigs with my band. Sometimes I change the form by creating a vamp out front that can supply a groove to warm up the band before the actual song appears. I know this works from many hours in front of an audience. The next is to find the right sonorities, harmony to fit the piece, to give it an edge if the song is too poppy or too correct. Some songs need dissonance in arrangements, some need to be even more popular to strengthen the song. Writing a bass line is always a good idea, as Ellington always wrote bass lines in his ballads to control the bottom of the piece and establish his Ellingtonness in the arrangement. I was lucky to be able to witness a great composer and arranger in Julius Hemphill. He taught me to envision an arrangement like building a house, from the bottom up. I learned to write songs away from any instrument in order to see things afresh and not something I practiced on the horn or piano. The paper is all you need if you know the blends of the horn section, study great arrangers like Tadd Dameron—he teaches you how to use different sonorities. The way I arrange now is much better than my earlier works as I am a student of many masters. You must practice arranging every day just as you practice your instrument. Don’t be afraid to borrow these tricks from other people because you will learn to make them your own. Playing with Paul [Zauner] is a pleasure because he is like a sponge, he learns very quickly and absorbs the music spiritually, his heart is in the right place so we fit together well. I have written three Operas and have worked with several big bands and various string ensembles like my album Waltz Again that I made in Havana, also Now is Another Time in Cuba. Big Bands with 20 Strings is my preferred ensemble but hard to do these days, easy is my quartet or trio. I need more financial support to show my enthusiasm for my large projects.
I think that every jazz lover, student or professional arranger should read the above a couple of times and understand how brilliant his words are. This is a man who knows what he knows because he keeps practicing it—arranging and writing—just as he practices his horn daily. More importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, note his comments. He learned from master arrangers…Julius Hemphill, certainly, but also from Dameron and Ellington. (He could just as easily have listened to Charles Mingus, George Russell or Pete Rugolo for the same reasons.) I don’t know how many times I have reviewed a CD of new jazz compositions and arrangements that is supposed to be “groundbreaking” but follows the same basic patterns of scoring for the brass, the reeds, etc. that have been in use since at least the time of Woody Herman’s First Herd in 1944. Yes, the compositions are different, but too many modern-day jazz arrangers seem to have no idea of sonority, of how to create interesting textures, and zero concept of layering the sound. I have been an admirer of Murray ever since I first heard 3-D Family, his 1978 album, around 1981.
Of course, Murray is also an exceptional jazz soloist in addition to being a great jazz composer and arranger, something Mingus also was but Dameron and Russell were not. (Ellington was an excellent band pianist, one of the best, but he’d be the first to tell you that he “just played the gingerbread around the arrangements.”) This is why he is so successful. He understands not only his own role within a composition/arrangement but how others in the band would fit in as well.
I want to thank David Murray for letting me in on his creative process. I’m not even sure that too many other jazz critics have ever asked him these kinds of questions, in part because they just take his skills for granted. As someone who has been involved in music since I was 12 years old, I know only too well not to take them for granted. I know how difficult they are to develop, and when I hear music as complex and interesting as Murray’s, I like to know how he puts it together.
One final thing, however. I disagree with him slightly that “The way I arrange now is much better than my earlier works.” Yes, he may be able to fit the pieces together more easily and resolve a few issues where before he just let them work themselves out, but his early work, even when he recorded with the Butch Morris Big Band back in the 1970s, was so far above the average, even the “average” of good, well-known jazz arrangers in that era, that I would daresay that he has always known instinctively what to do. Now, he knows intellectually what to do. I’m sure it comes easier to him now because of his years of practice; perhaps that is what he meant; but better in terms of the quality of the finished product, maybe so in certain details but not in the overall picture. At least, that’s how I feel.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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