Brian Morton on Sunny’s time now

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.