Sunny’s time now

A portrait of jazz drummer and composer Sunny Murray

The documentary feature Sunny’s time now explores the life and work of the avant-garde drummer Sunny Murray, one of the most influential figures of the Free Jazz revolution. Through a series of interviews with key time witnesses as well as historic and contemporary concert footage, it reassesses the relationship between the libertarian music movement and the political events of the 1960s whose social claims it so intimately reflected. It also recounts how the most radical forms of musical expression were excluded from all major production and distribution networks as the libertarian ideal went out of fashion.

Beyond its historical approach, the film follows Sunny Murray on current gigs, showing his daily struggle to perpetuate a musical genre which is still widely ignored by the general public. In doing so, Sunny’s time now also dwells on the near-clandestine community of aficionados who continue to worship the gods of their musical coming of age and have thus permitted free improvisational music to live on.

LUX/FR 2008, 108’, English/French, HD video, Dolby SRD,
German, French & English subtitles

Director Antoine Prum

Assistant Director Boris Kremer

Director of photography Camille Cottagnoud

Camera Carlo Thiel

Sound Engineer Gilles Laurent, Alex Davidson

Edit Theo Thiesmeier, Antoine Prum

Sound design Maïkôl Seminatore

Executive Producer Paul Thiltges

Production PTD Luxembourg

Co-Production La Bascule France

DVD (Region 9, PAL 16/9)

DVD 1: Film
Running time: 108’
Sound: 5.1 Dolby
Original languages: English, French, German
Subtitles: English, French

DVD 2: Special Features
Running time: 182’
Sound: Mono
Original languages: English, French
Subtitles: English

Paul Thiltges Distributions/Luxembourg
La Bascule/France

© Paul Thiltges Distributions/La Bascule
2008 (all rights reserved)
PTD-135 (5453000431391)

Price: 35 € + shipping

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Special Features (DVD 2)

Alger ’69 (16’)

This previously unreleased agitprop poem by the French filmmaker Théo Robichet shows a free jazz combo led by Archie Shepp performing in the streets of Algiers in the run-up to the first Panafrican Festival. The band, comprising Sunny Murray, Alan Silva, Clifford Thornton and Grachan Moncur III, is seen embarking on a delirious impro session in front of a slightly puzzled audience.

An interview with Sunny Murray (80’, English)

In this extensive talk with music writer Dan Warburton, Sunny Murray reminisces his upbringing on a farm in Idabel/Oklahoma, the early avant-garde days in New York, his love story with Paris, and what it’s like to be “Jesus coming home to Philly”.

An interview with Daniel Caux (37’, French, English s.t.)

The late French musicologist Daniel Caux recounts how he first rubbed shoulders with the US jazzmen during their self-inflicted exile in Paris at the end of the 1960s. Caux, who was the artistic director of the Shandar label, is best known for publishing a series of legendary recordings by the likes of Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Steve Reich and Lamonte Young.

An interview with Robert Wyatt (39’, English)

Robert Wyatt, the drummer and singer of the original Soft Machine line-up, evokes the intricate relations between the artistic and the political avant-garde and explains how free jazz radicals like Sunny Murray influenced his own musical development.

Sunny Murray

Brian Morton
The Wire, January 2010

A poem to the art of jazz as eternal rehearsal, Prum’s film proceeds by association and without much in the way of narrative. To gain a sense of Sunny Murray’s eastward progress, from a rural childhood to Philadelphia and New York City and post-évènements Paris, one needs to see Dan Warburton’s extended interview with the drummer on the special feature disc. It also includes performance footage (by Théo Robichet) from Algiers in 1969, film that suggests a faintly uneasy coming together of Franz Fanon-inspired post-colonialism and the libertarian message of the New Thing; an interview with the late Daniel Caux, founder of the Shandar label that put out important sessions by self-exiled Americans in Paris, notably Murray’s sometime employer Cecil Taylor; and an interview with Robert Wyatt that attempts to locate Murray’s stylistic influence.

Derek Bailey once claimed that the only ‘free jazz’ musicians he had ever heard were Peter Brötzmann and Milford Graves. One understands what he meant, but his choice of percussionist seems off the mark. It was Murray, more than Graves, or Andrew Cyrille, or Rashied Ali and Elvin Jones earlier, who helped change the role of the kit in the jazz combo, and changed the essence of the jazz combo in the process. Taylor, seen nibbling biscuits with his more recent drum choice Tony Oxley, generously attests to Murray’s importance: a story of him being carried shoulder-high by John Coltrane and Albert Ayler in recognition.

What did they hear? Murray’s astonishingly coherent dynamics make snare, toms, bass and cymbals (all honeyed and liquid) into a single, coherent instrument rather than an orchestra of effects. His time sense was, and is, unique. Bassist William Parker delivers a typically sententious verdict on Murray’s “vibrating sound... pulsing without separate rhythm”, which, as so often with Parker, sounds like windy nonsense until one grasps the intuitive accuracy of it.

Two things about Murray’s aesthetic have always intrigued me: how much he draws from a Native American percussion tradition (compare some of the solo fragments on Prum’s film with Moondog’s essays in Navajo walking and running rhythms); and how aware he was of the Black Mountain aesthetic of ‘composition by-field’, in which individual parameters – metre and metaphor in verse, harmony and rhythm in music – are less important than their intersections and overlaps. Trombonist Grachan Moncur III partially answers the latter when he makes reference to Murray’s kinship with Oscar Pettiford (who was of Native American extraction, and also Oklahoma born) and to his restoration of 4/4 in modern jazz. It sounds an unlikely point, this latter one, but it turns up again when The Wire publisher Tony Herrington and contributor Edwin Pouncey discuss Murray’s up-to-dateness and ability to function in almost any context, ‘free jazz’ to post-punk.

It’s clear that Prum’s title is as openended as one of Murray’s deceptively squared-off figures. His film is about time and times, and devoted to the notion that however hard they might have been in times gone by – Val Wilmer attests to the toughness and asceticism of the 1960s avant garde – they are here now. Murray high-fives hip kids on a Paris street where their uncles once levered up cobbles to throw at les flics. Robert Wyatt’s impression of the political background is a personal one, but it eases the perspective back towards an understanding of a music that was forged in a rhetoric, if not an expectation, of revolution.

Life and jazz as eternal rehearsal, suspended iteration: that’s the philosophical message of this film, to set against its more optative conviction that creative adventure always prevails.

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Sunny’s time now

Dan Warburton, Yule 200

By rights, I shouldn't be reviewing this double DVD at all, as I was involved in it myself (though my activities as "music consultant" – sounds awfully important, that – consisted merely of sitting down for an hour and half's chat with drummer Sunny Murray in the Plug In Studios near his flat in the XIIIème arrondissement of Paris), but it's such an outstanding piece of work I just can't resist. Luxembourg-based filmmaker Antoine Prum has produced an essential documentary, not only for anyone interested in Murray, the man and the musician, or in free jazz, but in music, full stop.

The secret of Prum's success, apart from his skill as a director and his passion for the music (both of which go without saying), is quite simple: money. The budget for his 108-minute film must have been pretty astronomical, allowing Prum, assistant director Boris Kremer and a whole film crew with a truckload of gear to follow Murray all over the place for over a year, accumulating footage of the maestro in action on no fewer than six occasions: a duo gig with François Tusques at Le Triton outside Paris, a sextet with Rasul Siddik, Richard Raux, Sonny Simmons, Harry Swift and Bobby Few at the Atelier Tampon, a date at London's Red Rose with Tony Bevan, John Edwards and Spring Heel Jack, a couple of gigs in Vienna with Fritz Novotny and pals, and, the cherry on the cake, a 12-piece Murray All Stars big band in Luxembourg with, amongst others, Sabir Mateen, Odean Pope, Grachan Moncur III and Henry Grimes (the budget for that concert alone would probably keep you in dope and booze for the rest of your life). Frustratingly but inevitably, not a lot of this live material actually makes it to the final film, and none of it makes it to the bonus DVD. Which means that Antoine, or someone in Luxembourg, is sitting on a goldmine of archive material. Let's hope more of it sees the light of day before we all die.

Meanwhile, the film also features interviews with, amongst others, William Parker, Cecil Taylor (scoop! munching crackers with Tony Oxley!), Grachan Moncur III (dig the story of Sunny being carried shoulder-high through the Half Note by Coltrane and Elvin Jones), Fritz Novotny, As Serious As Your Life author Val Wilmer, The Wire's Tony Herrington and Edwin Pouncey (not exactly essential, I'd say, but it gives Murray a bit of added street cred with the "young punks", as Herrington calls them), Robert Wyatt (a bit too much of him, to be frank – did we really need the background story to End Of An Ear in the film proper? there is after all a 39-minute interview on the bonus disc), and a whole host of French aficionados who got to know Murray and his music back at the end of the 60s, including pianist François Tusques, Jacques Bisceglia (who took many of the great BYG Actuel photos), Daniel Caux (who produced two albums featuring Murray on his legendary Shandar imprint and to whose memory the film is dedicated), Bernard Loupias and Charlie Hebdo's Delfeil de Ton, whose anecdotes of the mythic Amougies festival are truly hilarious.

And of course there's a lot of local colour: shots of punters in the Red Rose (is it my imagination or did I spot Chris Corsano in the crowd?), Richard Raux trying (without much success) to get the Luxembourg big band to rehearse his charts, an amazing couple of minutes of Henry Grimes on violin (no explanation given, and no explanation needed – the guy looks totally possessed) and two film extracts, one (uncredited) from Michael Snow's terrific New York Eye And Ear Control, the other from William Klein's terrible Mr. Freedom (Donald Pleasence as Dr. Freedom: "Let me tell you about the French – they are 50 million mixed-up, sniveling crybabies who haven't stood on their two feet since Napoleon, and that wasn't yesterday" – hmm, good job Mr. Prum lives across the border in a rich tax haven). The Murray interview footage is saved for the bonus DVD – and as I was technically responsible for that one, I'll refrain from comment – along with extended interviews with Wyatt and the late, lamented Daniel Caux and some scorching footage from the Pan-African Festival in Algiers in 1969.

The great thing about this film is that it doesn't bend over backwards to trumpet Sunny Murray's musical achievements (the archive film and comments from those involved do that perfectly well); nor does it try to view the man and his daily life through rose-coloured spectacles (witness the stories told by Val Wilmer, Cecil Taylor and Murray's son Oforie). Make no mistake: despite Edwin Pouncey's assertions that the future for Murray is whatever he wants it to be, Sunny is still scuffling to make ends meet. But, as Tony Herrington puts it so charmingly, he's still a motherfucker, and can still play his ass off – check out the Red Rose set. It's been a great pleasure and privilege to know him, and I sincerely hope that this magnificent documentary brings in enough work to keep him thrashing those cymbals for another 73 years. And an Oscar for Antoine Prum.-DW

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Sunny Murray's time now (and then)

Hank Shteamer
Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches, February 2010

Where are they now, the still-living architects of free jazz? For one, they're in Sunny's time now [sic], a 2008 documentary about Sunny Murray that has just reached me on DVD. The descriptor "sprawling" was invented for films like this: It's all over the place. Sometimes rambling, sometimes pointed, but for anyone who's into this stuff, it's riveting, mainly because of the cast.

Everyone is here. It's like a family reunion. Sonny Simmons, Grachan Moncur III, Henry Grimes, William Parker, Bobby Few, Cecil Taylor, Tony Oxley, Robert Wyatt (?!) and tons of others whom I was either unfamiliar with or knew only marginally: François Tusques, Tony Bevan, Fritz Novotny and more. And then the scholars and scribes: Val Wilmer (hail), Ekkehard Jost, Tony Herrington, etc.

All assembled to illuminate a difficult personality. I adored Sunny Murray, and then I caught him live at Tonic in October of '04 with Sabir Mateen and Dave Burrell, a gig documented by Eremite but which I could barely stand to relive. Without going into detail, Murray appeared in a visibly altered state and after Burrell took it upon himself to bring some much-needed focus to a wholly disjointed and directionless performance, the drummer stood up, tapped the pianist on the shoulder and stopped him cold. Cecil Taylor recounts the incident in Sunny's time now and seems to have found it amusing. To me, it was a travesty: Burrell chose to take the gig seriously and Murray didn't, and that was that. (I hate to slander anyone, but sometimes the facts are the facts, as this review of a Murray performance from last June attests: "...Sunny Murray spent most of the performance stumbling off his drum stool, lurching through the crowd and talking loudly while [Odean] Pope gamely tried to keep some semblance of a concert together. Left to himself for most of the gig, Pope padded time with a lecture and demonstration on Clifford Brown. Just as he was wrapping it up, Murray staggered back to the stage and grabbed the mic. “I just want you to know, I’m not drunk,” he asserted in a slur....")

So I've had some mixed feelings re: Murray over the years, and for a while I couldn't even listen to him. But who could stay mad at The Copenhagen Tapes or Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come? And then I started to warm up to the relaxed splendor of the later work, especially the amazing Dawn of a New Vibration, a 2000 duo session with Arthur Doyle on Fractal. (A contemporaneous example of that badass partnership is here.) There just wasn't much point in staying mad at Sunny Murray.

The film doesn't shy away from Murray's foibles. Murray's son, who shows up in a few brief interview clips, expresses a bit of pride at his father's renown but even more vexation re: Dad's uneven temperament. Cecil Taylor, in his inimitably catty way, provides more evidence of same. And rehearsal footage of an insanely star-studded large-ensemble gig in Luxembourg depicts Murray as impish and distracted.

But there's so much to love and to marvel at here. Try a duo concert with Bobby Few, like the entire film, beautifully shot and recorded. Try the aforementioned Luxembourg gig. We only get a few segments, but dear God, the lineup: Murray, Grimes, Moncur, Few, Simmons, Pope, Rasul Siddick, Tony Bevan and more. And--so poetic and humble and real, I can't even begin to express--a small-group version of "Round Midnight" from a Paris club gig with Simmons, Few and some others. Tons of jazz musicians come full circle, moving through free jazz and back into standards, but rarely do they re-address the tradition with such grace as these expatriate free-jazz types. Simmons and Few, I already knew about, but Murray is such a good match for them. His restraint (perfectly content to wisp about with brushes) will astound you. Some very intrepid and enterprising producer needs to get these three together for a trio session pronto.

There's also so much here that has nothing to do with Murray. Little scraps re: the European and British perceptions of American free jazz. François Tusques praising Archie Shepp for his political awareness and mocking Frank Wright for his political ignorance. Val Wilmer going through old Murray photos she took, admiring how they capture his intense (and, she asserts, unusual for the idiom) love for his family.

Again, a mixed bag, but an essential one. The performance footage is golden. Loved seeing/hearing Murray in duet with Novotny, a soprano sax player with whom I was totally unfamiliar. And the concluding presentation of the Murray, Bevan and John Edwards trio is a

mindfuck, full of brawn and sweat, but also grace. Didn't care for Spring Heel Jack contributions or another gig featuring unfortunate electric bass, but it all just hangs out there and becomes part of the film's weird patchwork quality. Maybe it's because Murray himself isn't directly interviewed (he is on the bonus disc, though), but everything here feels like a tangent. Fortunately many of these tangents also register as revelations.

But as I (tried to) indicate above, what will stick with you are the personalities of these still feisty old men, the immense variance. Simmons's absurdly charming rakishness, Few's heart-melting sweetness, Moncur's mercurial oddness, Taylor's relentless superciliousness. What an unbelievably diverse bunch of men, these first-wavers. This film's greatest triumph is to place all these artists in the NOW. We know them from records, and we often fetishize their discographies over their physical presences. (As the Murray gig I described above indicates, sometimes the artists have given us good reason to do so.) But they still have a lot to tell us.

Sunny's time now, yes. But it's also the time of all the others who lit the fire in the '60s and kept raging, albeit in a sublimated way. Think of Bill Dixon, whom I just listened to today in a fantastic trio with two young improv masters. Think of the aforementioned Dave Burrell, whose recent records are some of his very best.

In Murray's case, it's somewhere in between. For sheer ecstatic insanity, you're not going to beat his early work. But when he manages to keep his composure these days (the Bevan/Edwards band seems like a particular good focusing agent for him), he's really got something going, a droopy dance, the pinnacle of unhurriedness, following buzzy, uneven snare rolls with clumsy yet thunderous thwacks on bass drum and crash. And (as you can hear in the "Round Midnight" I mentioned above) a tremendous respect for song form, for contour, and (again, when he's behaving) for his fellow players. In the majority of the live footage in this film, he is, in fact, behaving, and accompanying in a remarkably sympathetic fashion. So if nothing else, the film helped me to further forgive Murray for the disastrous

2004 gig I'd caught. We may only get sporadic brilliance from Murray these days—a statement that applies to several of the aforementioned early-free-jazz survivors--but the good stuff is worth the required patience.

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