Last month, when greeted at New York's Birdland by absolute strangers visiting from California, David Murray was unassuming and subdued; he offered a smile, an extended hand, a cool "Hey, nice to see you," as if greeting old friends. Later, onstage, the tenor saxophonist introduced his first number with equally calm understatement, but once he began playing, a total transformation occurred: fingertips vibrating across the keys, eyes rolled into the back of the head, body slightly convulsing. It was like watching someone in the electric chair backed by a rhythm section.
Indeed, through the whole performance, the 52-year-old Murray played as if each breath were his last, sometimes to literal extremes, with minute-long passages of circular breathing techniques fueling his frenzied flights into the improvised unknown. No melody or moment remained immune to the aggressive skill at hand; at the end of a particularly uproarious bass clarinet solo, the bell of the horn accidentally fell to the stage. Murray picked it up, put it to his mouth, and shouted the rest of his solo to the audience.
Murray's newest release is Sacred Ground. It is his 83rd album, and it's among his best. Lured by the disparate styles of Coleman Hawkins and Albert Ayler, Murray made a conscious decision to avoid the shadow of John Coltrane early in his career, but on Sacred Ground, he has settled halfway between the two, a crazy neighbor taking up residence on Coltrane's block. The vocalist Cassandra Wilson appears on two of the album's cuts, singing the lyrics of the poet Ishmael Reed, but Murray's soaring sheets of sound still steal the show.
Sacred Ground's centerpiece is "Banished," a one-chord rumination inspired by the expulsion of thousands of American blacks from their homes between 1890 and 1930. Its feeling is reminiscent of Coltrane's "Alabama," and eerily so when played live at Birdland, where Coltrane's original was recorded. The quartet hung on an F minor figure while Murray transfixed himself into his horn, blowing a sorrowful moan from unfathomable depths. At song's end, the calm, casual demeanor returned, the eyes opened back up, and Murray was Murray again. Hey, nice to see you.