Jazz Album Review: David Murray’s “Francesca” — Antic and Intense

By Michael Ullman

The music on David Murray’s Francesca is both antic and intense; it’s played by a responsive and inventive quartet who sound like they are having considerable fun entertaining themselves.

David Murray, Francesca (Intakt)

When I, perhaps not a typical listener, think about the jazz scene in the ’80s, I immediately remember the then seemingly ubiquitous saxophonist David Murray. I have a couple of dozen of his recordings from the time, ranging from solo to big band. He was notably an original member of the popular World Saxophone Quartet. Like all of the Murray groups I saw live, they were a stylish, even sporty, combine — as well as musically exciting. If you also heard them live, you’ll remember them marching off stage to their own jaunty “Steppin’” tune. Murray liked to mix it up: he also made at least five sessions with his octet. It was peopled by the stars of the new music, musicians like Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, Anthony Davis, and Steve McCall. Enthusiastic contributors to the surging world of free jazz, they all benefited from the loft scene of the mid-’70s and ’80s.

Murray has a historical sense of his instrument. On the big band recording The David Murray Big Band, conducted by Butch Morris, he recorded tributes to tenor saxophonists Paul Gonsalves (his famous solo on Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”) as well as Lester Young and Ben Webster. (No tribute to Coleman Hawkins though.) With his husky sound and overtly impassioned style, he never sounded like Lester Young. More significantly, Murray didn’t sound like Coltrane either. Born in Oakland, California, the now 69-year-old master first played saxophone in public at his house of worship, the Missionary Church of God in Christ on Allston Way in Berkeley. The story is that, when Murray showed up with his new alto saxophone, his preacher saw that the young man had brought an instrument with him and invited Murray to play for the congregation. I hear more of Thelonious Monk in his music than gospel, but perhaps the almost wild expressiveness of his music hearkens back to those beginnings.

Murray is back with a new quartet record featuring the Spanish-born virtuoso Marta Sanchez on piano, Luke Stewart on bass, and Russell Carter on drums. On the session Murray plays bass clarinet as well as tenor. Drawing on a deep, woody tone, Murray showcases the bass clarinet on the playful waltz “Richard’s Tune,” composed by Don Pullen in honor of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. (Pullen recorded it in his solo album on Sackville in 1975 and two years later on Atlantic with his quintet live at Montreux). Murray’s version begins mischievously, with the bass clarinetist exploring the top range of the instrument in a series of short phrases that eventually bounce all over his instrument’s radius, including a few slap tongued notes. The opening is a duet with Sanchez until, after about a minute, the rhythm section clicks in and the tune becomes a lighthearted piece that seems to dance. Sanchez takes the first solo: her playing preserves the staggering lyrical feel of the theme. Murray’s solo becomes increasingly agitated. His performance is notable for the scope of its pitches along with its drive and occasional lilt. Bassist Luke Stewart also solos brightly.

The other seven numbers are by Murray. “Free Mingus” begins appropriately, with the bass reiterating the theme over piano and drums. It’s a surprisingly gentle number which Murray plays sweetly — no Mingus histrionics allowed. “Am Gone Get Some” is a lively number which hints at Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” (and also Henry Mancini). The session opens with the title number, which is dedicated to Murray’s wife, Francesca. “Francesca” is a neatly phrased, buoyant tune that Murray performs in his forthright style, albeit tempered by some Ben Webster gentleness. My sense is that this disc is about family, extended family. “Ninno” is dedicated to a now deceased family dog. Here and everywhere on Francesca the rhythm section shines, as accompanists and soloists. Drummer Carter and bassist Stewart agilely negotiate the rhythmic shifts of “Cycles and Seasons.” The entire track is enlivened by Sanchez’s breaks and wrapped up by a short solo from Carter. The music on Francesca is both antic and intense; it’s played by a responsive and inventive quartet who sound like they are having considerable fun entertaining themselves.

For over 30 years, Michael Ullman has written a bimonthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. He has emeritus status at Tufts University, where for 45 years he taught in the English and Music Departments, specializing in modernist writers and nonfiction writing in English, and jazz and blues history in music. He studied classical clarinet. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. He plays piano badly.


  1. Allen Michie on June 28, 2024 at 3:53 pm

    I read in a recent interview that Murray *hates* this album cover! Fantastic music, though, as usual for him and whomever he includes in his bands.

    • annon on July 3, 2024 at 6:04 pm

      He also said this at the Village Vanguard opening night. lol.

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