David Murray’s Cuban Ensemble Meets Nat “King” Cole

Exploring the Latin side of “a shining image of greatness”

Around 4 p.m. on a steamy, somnolent Labor Day, saxophonist David Murray, in from Paris, was hard at work at Manhattan’s Carroll Studios. Wearing a cream-colored linen shirt and white pants, both darkened with sweat, Murray, positioned at the rim of a U-shaped cohort of A-list local Cubans, was soloing through his arrangement of “Tres Palabras.”

After a rhapsodic middle section, Murray, 56, sipped vin rouge from a plastic cup and stood before trap drummer Ludwig Afonso and conguero Yusnier Sanchez. “We’re going to go into a dance tempo here,” he said, launching an animated stomp. They transitioned to a vigorous rumba. Murray blew slithery, guttural lines from his Selmer Mark VI tenor. He stopped on a dime and faced pianist Manuel Valera, then alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry. “Let’s go back to where I enter. It’s not on the paper, but go into whatever riff you get into.” The band complied, and Murray, who practices like he performs, preached a while in the tongue-speak falsetto register. “We could do that for 20 minutes and have a good time,” he said.

The musicians left at 6, having run through several more “Latin Songbook” classics-“Aqui se Habla en Amor,” “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” “No Me Platiques”-from The David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole en Español (Motéma), which they would perform over the following two months at gigs in New York and the Bay Area. Recorded last June in Argentina, the date documents Murray’s inflamed-soul interpretations of repertoire that Cole sang in Spanish on Cole Español (1958) and More Cole Español (1962), both huge south-of-the-border successes. His charts, which feel Latin but aren’t idiomatically so, strip the original iterations of syrup and cheese, balancing Murray’s ebullient ensemble dissonances with keen attention to melody. Throughout, Murray accesses both channel-the-spirits overblowing and a vibrato-rich, romantic quality straight from the Coleman Hawkins-Paul Gonsalves-Ben Webster playbook.

Launched in July 2009, “Nat Cole en Español” may be Murray’s most commercially mainstream project ever, consistently filling large venues in Europe and Latin America. His ensemble comprises Madrid-based Cubans, sometimes augmented with a string orchestra and such luminaries as Cuban singer Omara Portuondo, of Buena Vista Social Club fame, and Argentine tanguero Daniel Melingo, who sings four selections on the new album.

Murray described the ambiance of the premiere, before an audience of “Europeans who know these songs, who vacationed at some dive resort in Cuba and heard Cachaito. The strings are playing, and suddenly 4,000 heads pressed together and became 2,000.” A subsequent Paris performance with Portuondo “made me cringe. It was the first time I thought, ‘This shit could be in Las Vegas.’ Am I that fuckin’ old and tired that I could be in Vegas?”

After rehearsal, Murray mused, “I guess this is off-the-wall. Why would I play Nat King Cole en Español?” He answered the rhetorical question, recalling the origin moment eight years before at Havana’s EGREM studios, where Murray was recording Now Is Another Time (Justin Time) with a Cuban big band. “We saw a picture of Nat Cole recording there,” Murray recalled. “My parents were gospel people and didn’t like jazz. But they liked Nat King Cole because he was such a shining image of greatness, decked out in hip clothes and shoes, not bucking his eyes back and making his lips all big and red. My father didn’t care if he was a Holy Roller gospel dude. It was more like, ‘Yeah, you need to be like that.'”

When Murray moved to New York at 20, his father told him, “Just go out there and make some money-you’ll get good.” He heeded the counsel, balancing pragmatic and art-for-art’s-sake imperatives with some success during his two New York decades. But since relocating to Paris in 1996, he’s taken artistic entrepreneurship to new levels. Partnering with his wife, Valerie Malot, who runs 3D Family, their production-booking agency, he’s conceptualized a series of Afro-Diasporic-oriented projects-Cuba, Guadeloupe, Senegal, Ghana, South Africa-that “try to get to the core where the musics fuse.”

He’s composed two operas: Bumpy Johnson, set to Amiri Baraka’s libretto, traces the life and times of the Harlem numbers kingpin, while Pushkin is Murray’s response to the lyrics of the iconic, Cameroon-descended Russian poet. Forthcoming in 2012 are “a political piece” about Nelson Mandela, and a harmolodic big band playing Murray’s orchestrations of James Blood Ulmer’s solos. Immediately on tap were three days of rehearsal for a one-shot, Red Bull-sponsored September 11th Paris concert entitled “Questlove’s Afro-Picks,” with Murray conducting his arrangements of 11 Afrobeat songs, played by the Roots and a large ensemble, sung by Macy Gray and Black Thought and propelled by drum legend Tony Allen.

“Maybe it’s time for me to make some money,” Murray said. “But I miss the originality of playing my own music. I’ll get back to it eventually.”