Trombonist, composer, bandleader, festival owner, label owner, record producer and entrepreneur Austrian Paul Zauner has led his Blue Brass unit since the ‘90s, at times featuring key guests. Roots n’ Wings, though is every bit as much about the versatile saxophonist and composer David Murray who plays tenor sax and bass clarinet throughout and composed six of the seven tunes, the other from Blues Brass saxophonist Clements Salesny. When most of us see Murray’s name we hearken back to his days as co-founder of the World Saxophone Quartet or the adventurous avant-garde he’s famous for. After all, Murray has 150 albums as a leader and 100 others as a sideman, ranging from jazz to the Grateful Dead and The Roots. Murray can be out on the edge but he’s mostly accessible here. Murray lives in New York but spends considerable time in Europe as he has a home in Portugal.
The other members of Blue Brass include trumpeter Mario Rom, tenor saxophonist Klemens Pliem, (Salesny plays also and bass clarinet), pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Wolfram Derschmidt, and drummer Dusan Novakov. Zauner played two tours with David Murray’s band “Last of the Hipmen” in the late ‘80s which in turn led to the 1989 CD Last of the Hipmen. Consider this a long overdue reunion of sorts. The two toured together in 2017 and following what the Financial Times described as an ‘epic concert” in London, Murray proposed to produce and arrange a studio recording with Zauner’s Blue Brass.
Murray cites his major influences as Ellington’s renowned tenor player, Paul Gonsalves, Lester Young, and Ben Webster, surprisingly all considered traditionalists. His compositions here resemble some of his work in ‘80s, regular rhythms, common tonality, but varied textures that have some of the instruments playing in opposing directions to the melody. It’s certainly not always conventional ensemble work. Murray makes the opening statement on his tenor in the oddly titled “Hongkonkg” and it’s clear from Rom’s trumpet solo and the following reed passages that these players are in synch with him.
”Scooter” has some blues and funk owing to the brass band sound of New Orleans. Murray, though, is never predictable, always capable of inserting the unexpected chord or key change as he does here. This piece, in addition to the imaginative solo from Murray features strong excursions from Zauner and pianist Holmes. “Spoonin” has a rhumba beat and a middle section that’s hard to nail down, as it moves in many harmonic directions. One of the highlights here is the bassline, played in double time beneath the solos of Zauner and Rom.
”Obe” is a swinging, jumping tune with unusual trumpet lines. Murray wrote it for the Butch Morris Band years ago. It has an engaging piano solo, a nice contribution form Pleim’s tenor, and again the bass walking stands out. Zauner too steps in with an off-kilter solo, with a rather chaotic backdrop of shifting rhythm and key changes, before the ensemble closes it out. This, more than the others, veers to that patented Murray edge. “Blues for Ruben’ deceptively begins as conventional “big band” jazz (quite a feat with only seven players) but soon becomes unusual in the counter figures. The soloists clearly listen to one another, and build inventively, not repetitively, off each’s statement. The payoff comes at the end with two saxes playing opposite rhythms and different tonalites.
The title track is the longest, weighing in at 14 minutes. It’s reminiscent of Mingus. In fact, Murray’s unpredictability in composing lands him in the ranks of Mingus and Monk, though he’ll likely never attain that kind of lofty pedestal. It begins as an ensemble piece but, surely excellent solos ensure. In the middle you can again hear both tenors as Pliem follows Murray, his the more thoughtful with Murray, of course, being more explorative. We close with “Jekyll & Hyde” by Salesny, a piece that sounds like something from early Ellington with some modern flourishes. It has Murray on bass clarinet, and some nice bass work once again.
This is highly imaginative music. Kudos to Zauner for letting Murray hijack his band. If you love the music of Mingus, forward pushing large ensembles, or are a long-time Murray fan, this one is for you. It’s got blues, straight-ahead, NOLA, and avant-garde in one tidy package.