Dan Warburton on Sunny’s time now

paristransatlantic.com, 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.