After Sunny Murray left Cecil Taylor’s band, he asked me if he could put his drums in my apartment. We had already played together once, at Slugs’, when I first came to town. And of course I knew his work; I knew that he was rightfully called “the dean of modern drumming.”
I had a $40 walk-up with a bathtub in the kitchen on East Third Street, between First and Second Avenues, and once Sunny got his drums in the corner of that small living room we started playing together every day. He brought the tribalness of the Choctaw Indians, [part of his heritage] from back in Oklahoma. He could get the drums to break glass with his intensity, just off of vibrations. I remember everything sliding off the shelves. His tone would attack you in a way that you could not escape. If you were at the piano, you had to come in with that same kind of commitment.
When we first played together I couldn’t hear myself, so I had to figure out a way to play above him or below him. Pharoah Sanders and I had been playing out of the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky, about 20 pages a day, and that was strengthening my chops. So with Sunny I just moved what I had in the middle register to the lower register or up above his cymbals.
In the early days, it was really beautiful just to hang out with him. I can remember Sunny sitting on the hood of a car right out in front of Slugs’, with the Baroness and Philly Joe Jones maybe two cars back. We would go to a place across the street called the Old Reliable to have a drink. They used to have a special: one dollar for wine in a beer stein, and you could take that stein across the street and into Slugs’.
We eventually developed a kind of telepathy. I put together a group to play at Lincoln Center with Sunny and a vocalist. We put the piano through a synthesizer and had a painter standing behind me. We were all wearing white for some reason, and the paint was splashing all over us, but the New York Times called it “space-age electronic jazz.”
The intensity was at its highest in Archie Shepp’s band. We went to Algiers at the invitation of the U.S. State Department, with bassist Alan Silva and drummer Beaver Harris—trumpeter/trombonist Clifford Thornton was already in Timbuktu, and he joined us there. Once you went to Africa with Sunny, you felt like you had graduated into another realm; you were better able to catch his rhythms and do things with them that were more satisfying to the music.
Sunny and I were both very much inspired by that trip to Africa, hearing all the hand percussion, so we came right back to Paris and started making a recording. For my LP Echo, we turned off the lights and agreed to have a 20-minute improvised streak, using the motif of the sirens that we heard in Algiers. Sunny lifted the whole band into a kind of spiritual rain. It was vintage Sunny Murray.
He always had a lot of energy and sometimes, as with a lot of drummers, you got the feeling that if they didn’t get a chance to play, pretty soon they’d just go stir crazy. Sometimes we had disagreements, but we were always able to make up. We hooked up again when my wife Monika Larsson and I moved to Philly in 1985. We played at the Knitting Factory in New York on kind of a regular basis for a while, with different combinations of Philadelphia musicians.
I always felt like there was more to learn from Sunny and more to contribute. I really miss him. I miss his unique style and I wish he was able to be back here with us doing what we do.
Read Shaun Brady’s Essential Guide to Sunny Murray albums.