Jazz Experimentalist Dana Murray Creates Demanding Yet Rewarding Listen With ‘The Negro Manifesto’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Through his almost 30-year career Omaha’s Dana Murray has been a collaborator, sideman, producer or educator, roles that he will continue.  Given his impressive resume, it’s rather surprising that this is drummer Dana Murray’s first solo album – The Negro Manifesto. Murray’s musical career has run the gamut from jam band rock to Broadway to hip-hop, and to both straight ahead and experimental jazz.  Elements of jazz, spoken word, rap, hip-hop and electronica make up this challenging project.

Murray dubbed his unit, the Dana Murray 4, consisting of JD Allen on tenor sax, Murray on drums, percussion and effects; with Reg Wyns and Elizabeth Kantumanou on vocals. The album serves as both a summary of history and a commentary on contemporary issues that facing blacks. Murray is taking on a system that perpetuates racism, sexism, and injustice. The piece itself comes across chaotically at times – an appropriate tone for the universal struggle Murray is unraveling.  Echoes of Coltrane come through Allen’s tenor and the spoken word sections evoke Gil-Scott Heron as well as hip-hop activists The Goats.  The electronica takes a page or two from Philip Glass.

The early part of the sequence from “Comfort,” “The System,” and “Comfortable Discomfort” is punctuated with the “field Negro” and the “house Negro” based on the writings of Malcolm X. For example, “Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, twentieth-century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, to keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. That’s Tom making you nonviolent. You suffer… PEACEFULLY. -Malcolm X

That’s followed by a rather startling take on Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” sung by Kantumanou.  Then, with the backdrop of “Star Spangled Banner” begins the three-piece “Suite Kaepernick,” shedding light on recent oppression.  The chaos subsides briefly for the dissonant piano chords and Allen’s wailing sax in the third section before ending quietly with ballad-like piano notes.

” Temptation” is a disturbing piece, appropriately filled with static and distorted vocals, as a young black girl explains the horror of being suddenly attacked without any provocation. It might remind listeners of Tupac’s tune of the same name, or more recently, Joey BadA$$’s. Here though, it’s not a rap but a spoken word/musical piece with this chorus – “God walked down in the cool of the day/Called Adam by his name.”  “Ballad of Lies” also uses effects including bells that are reminiscent of perhaps a slavery or prison setting.  Again, Allen’s Coltrane-like tenor evokes the jazz sound from the early sixties Civil Rights Era. “Dead Wishes” has effects across ballad-like tenor playing and gorgeous, mournful vocals that end with “if these long dead wishes ever do come true.”  The closer, “Alice Mae(Hope)” has Kantumanou singing “if we could see the world through your eyes” while Reg Wyns responds in hymn-like fashion.  The harpsichord in the background and bits of melody from “Over the Rainbow’” close the album beautifully.

It’s beneficial also to know a few things about Murray if this is your first exposure to him.  He has written film scores, performed on Broadway and as producer, collaborated with Eric Revis on his 2017 album “Sing Me Some Cry” as well as Aloe Blacc, Caron Wheeler, Orrin Evans, Oliver Lake, Nasheet Waits and more. Murray has held teaching positions at several schools in the Omaha area including the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and founded the Dojo Percussion and its parent company DMgroove Drum Dojo, which aims to reach the masses through the power of music and percussive art.

This is certainly a demanding listen that has its rewards. Kudos to Murray for an ambitious effort.

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