21. Theme for a life, and a lifetime

Flowers for Albert. From David Murray, Flowers for Albert, 1976.

My week centred on a family funeral so this track, which was waiting its turn anyway, suits the mood. It’s David Murray’s dedication to Albert Ayler, whose influence also colours the saxophone sound in this early Murray performance.

I was well impressed by Murray, my almost exact contemporary, when he played a solo set at the Bracknell Festival in 1978. This set, from a concert in a New York loft a couple of years earlier when he was just 21, was his debut as a leader, and must have come my way soon afterwards. All the tunes bar one are his – as with quite a few on this list a later CD version had extra tracks – but this always seemed like the right one for the album title.

The band, like the leader, play freer than Murray usually did later in his career. Fred Hopkins on bass and Philip Wilson on drums make the tenor player sound like a West Coast raised member of the AACM, while Olu Dara on trumpet completes a piano-less quartet. Murray gradually works his way into the theme unaccompanied, then the others join for an impassioned statement of the tune. The tenor player’s gnarly solo follows, Murray at this stage in his career very interested in ugly beauty. Dara contributes, more melodically but still mournfully, then the grand theme reappears.

It’s a fine threnody – Murray tells how the tune came to him when walking past the spot on New York’s East River where Albert Ayler’s body washed up (though other versions have appeared over the years). And it’s probably the tune Murray has recorded most often since: can’t be sure because because the man’s discography is so big. Anyway, there are plenty of worthwhile later versions, some discussed knowledgeably here. Interestingly, they often take it into quite different moods. The quintet that played The London Concert in 1978 used it as a somewhat more upbeat blowing vehicle for nigh on half an hour (another track added to an LP release in a later reissue).

There’s a big band arrangement, and a very tasty octet treatment with Bobby Bradford and funky trombone from Craig Harris that reframes it very effectively.

I like all of them, and the way they thread through the composer’s career, but this remains the one that captures a particular way of playing it best. That hasn’t gone away either. The sound, and the theme, surfaced again, with a (brief) vocal even, in this fine solo livestream from lockdown last year (beginning at around 1hr.08mins) – there’s life in this tune yet!

Why the No 21? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify.

And I’m going to collect all the posts on this page.

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