Live: David Murray Brings The Sounds Of Pre-Castro Cuba To The Skirball Center

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K. Leander Williams/tru2blupix
David Murray Cuban Ensemble
Skirball Center at NYU
Thursday, November 17

Better than: Contemplating State Department travel restrictions.

There's a complex irony in the timing of tenor saxist David Murray's latest foray into Cuban music. We're currently smack in the middle of the recording industry's seasonal jockeying for Grammy nominations, and had the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) not eliminated the "Latin Jazz" category this past spring, the David Murray Cuban Ensemble's new tribute to pop icon Nat Cole's Spanish-language records, ...Plays Nat King Cole En Español, would have been an obvious candidate for a slot. (The most vocal critics of NARAS's decision have charged that removing the category takes the recording industry back to the chauvinistic climate of Cole's heyday, when the mainstream paid very little attention to pop demographics of color.)

Last night as Murray took the stage with a tentet of young, fresh, predominantly Cuban sidemen, his motives were clearly as personal as they were commercial. The idea, as he said in one introduction at the mic, was to work his singular dynamism on "tunes that everybody knows"; sincere, yes, but also a bit of an overstatement unless one can imagine millions of Gen X, Y and Z-ers slamming up Spotify for anything other than Cole's 1958 version of "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas." Although at only 56 Murray seemed senior to the rest of the bandmembers by at least 15 years, his brawny tone and slicing delivery instantly marked him as the radical in the bunch. Even with the presence of a conguero (Yusnier Sanchez Bustamente) and a trap drummer whose cross-rhythms often implied timbales (Edgar Pantoja Aleman), the easy rhythmic lilt of the pieces was a reminder of just how distant they are from the present day. (Cole was actually the big moneymaker at Capitol Records before the Beatles found a domestic home there.) Murray was much more successful at undercutting the grooves live than he is on record, perhaps because last night the Cuban Ensemble performed without the string section that lends both dissonance and pre-Castro authenticity—in the form of charanga—to the record.

Murray's sound surges forward while putting listeners in touch with the very essences of jazz saxophone. In a field that is unabashedly post-Coltrane, it's striking to hear a saxist who has always followed the line that leads from Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins back through Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. The things you notice when Murray is in the lower registers are his throaty buzz and hard-beat/soft-beat phrasing; thankfully, he never stays there long enough for his solos to calcify. He quickly tempers the deeper lines with an upper register that alternates between liquid fluidity and whistle-y bite. No small wonder that the showcase that brought the house down came during the ballad "No Me Platiques," when the band slimmed all the way down to a limpid (courtesy of pianist Eddy Mauricio Herrera Tamayo) Murray-centric quartet.

That's not to say that the other horns on the gig didn't make good use of solo space. The trumpeters, Dennis Hernandez and Shareef Clayton, both got off rousing solos, while fleet altoist Yosvany Terry matched slippery choruses opposite tenorist Roman Filiu O'Reilly (the only player who's also on the recording) on "Piel Canela." Murray's arrangements were structured so that the full horn section could prod the soloists with beautifully off-kilter interjections, and at varying intervals Terry added even more rhythms by brandishing a shekere. Without making too big a deal out of it, it wasn't too hard to see him as the Cuban Ensemble's hypeman.

Critical bias: The more drums the better, though augmented percussion says a dance hall to me rather than concert hall.

Random notebook dump: The hardest-driving tune, "Black Nat," was not from the '50s. Turns out it's Murray's own.

Set list:
El Bodeguero
Black Nat
Cachito
Tres Palabras
Piel Canela
No Me Platique
Quizás, Quizás, Quizás

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