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The Essential Sunny Murray: A Listener’s Guide

Sunny Sides: 5 must-hear recordings

Cecil Taylor's "Nefertiti: The Beautiful One Has Come" album
Albert Ayler's "Spiritual Unity" album
Sunny Murray's self-titled 1966 album on ESP-Disk'
Sunny Murray's "Big Chief" album
David Murray Quartet's "A Sanctuary Within" album

From our November drum issue, here’s a guide to five essential recordings by free-jazz drumming great Sunny Murray, contributed by Shaun Brady.

Nefertiti: The Beautiful One Has Come
(Revenant, 1997)

Recorded live in Denmark in 1962, this two-disc trio set with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons marks a key transition for Taylor, as he expands his approach into increasingly free territory. Murray plays with swing abstractions and muscular ferocity, maintaining a stunning tension throughout.

Spiritual Unity
(ESP-Disk’, 1964)

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Murray being able to so masterfully keep step with Ayler’s idiosyncratic blend of control and chaos; the two shared an instinct for rescuing the rawest of expression from the brink of free fall. Spiritual Unity marked the pinnacle of their tent-revival gut-punch collaboration.

Sunny Murray
(ESP-Disk’, 1966)

Murray’s sophomore release as a leader is a visceral free-blowing quintet session featuring bassist Alan Silva and a frontline of alto saxophonists Byard Lancaster and Jack Graham and trumpeter Jacques Coursil. It’s the drummer-leader’s bedrock rumble that steers this ship, however, navigating the ensemble from still waters to tempestuous whirlpools.

Big Chief
(Pathé, 1969)

A summit meeting of international musicians, many of them unfamiliar names, this understated gem was recorded in Paris and finds Murray commanding a more orchestral ensemble. While still prone to unleashing percussive avalanches, the textures are more varied, ranging from the fiery harangues of poet Hart Leroy Bibbs to the mournful processional of Richard Rodgers’ “This Nearly Was Mine.”

A Sanctuary Within
(Black Saint, 1992)

A distinct change of pace, both the drummer and the usually fire-breathing tenorman work in atypically subtle and intoxicating fashion. The date offers not only the pleasures of the two (unrelated) Murrays joining forces but also features Kahil El’Zabar adding African percussion elements to the mix.

Also see The Sunny Murray Interview.

Originally Published