Early last week at Yoshi’s Go Left Fest, drummer Sunny Murray—easily one of the most important stickmen in 1960s avant-garde jazz—came out on stage, sat down at his kit, and started calling out for a woman he once dated in San Francisco 40 years ago. No one answered.
“You’re just hiding because you got remarried,” he proposed, directing his next comments to the imaginary husband of the absent woman. “I was going to kill her first husband, you know. Sun Ra gave me a .38. I love guns, I’ll shoot your ass, boy.”
With this, he laughed. “I’m not gonna kill you,” Murray added. “I’ll just shoot your kneecaps off.”
Murray, who established his career by drumming on famous sessions alongside Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Archie Shepp and a host of other breakneck pioneers, then picked up his sticks. He is 73, and his drumming has slowed but not entirely abandoned propulsion. His trio, Positive Knowledge, played one steady stream of music for over a half hour, combining reeds, gongs, poetry and noise. For an avant-garde festival, it felt strangely behaved.
At the end, Murray was still thinking about that beautiful woman from 40 years ago who got away. He approached the microphone. “She was half Filipino, from San Francisco,” he told the crowd. “My wife took one look at her and said ‘Why’d you leave her for me?!’”
“I told her, ‘Because I love you, motherfucker!’”
Then he walked off the stage.
I was plenty thrilled that Abdullah Ibrahim is coming to Yoshi’s in San Francisco (June 5-7), but today’s announcement from hit-the-ground-running Artistic Director Jason Olaine officially blows away worrisome reports of booking more mainstream fare like Joan Osborne and Bruce Hornsby.
Attention, free jazz fans: The inaugural Go Left Fest, two days of avant-garde legends at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, is coming on June 22 and 23.
It’s crazy enough that Marshall Allen, the 85-year old Sun Ra cohort and torchbearer, is part of the festival. It’s insane enough that Roswell Rudd, whose New York Art Quartet and New York Eye and Ear Control are essentials, is appearing too. Throw into the mix author Ishmael Reed, pianist Matthew Shipp, pianists Myra Melford and Mark Dresser, bassist Joe Morris, clarinetist Beth Custer and saxophonist Oluyemi Thomas, and a joyful noise unto the rock of our outer planes is guaranteed.
The cause of my personal hysteria? The drummer on the dates, Sunny Murray. I picked up Eremite’s deluxe reissue of Murray’s hailed-but-impossible-to-find 1969 album Big Chief recently, and it’s as blistering and intense as a hailstorm of roofing nails. (Limited to 600 copies—laminated cover, pressed at RTI, 180 gram, the whole bit. Dusty Groove seems to still have some in stock.)
I assumed Murray, pictured above, was living as a hermit these days in some out-of-the-way neighborhood in Paris, stockpiling newspaper clippings and watching static on TV sets and baking bread or something. I’m glad to know he’s still playing—after an incredible career backing up key Cecil Talyor and Albert Ayler dates, along with leading his own groups.
Murray’s classic album An Even Break (Never Give a Sucker), on BYG Actuel, is a must-have, but Murray is unlikely to see any royalties from it, according to this stellar interview by Clifford Allen. Most record companies are shady, but BYG Actuel made it an art—it turns out that BYG Actuel’s contracts were presented to American musicians drafted in French:
I made three albums, Archie made four; we were like children in a candy field. And we signed contracts, but Archie was the only one who understood a little French. And like you said, the contracts are so artificial. Like one of the lines, they said they owned the music for infinity. [laughs] It’s impossible! I showed my lawyer and he laughed, and we didn’t know what to say.
The Go Left Fest at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, which should hopefully toss some money in Murray’s bank account, is on June 22 and 23. There’s one long show each night, at 8pm; tickets are $40 each or $65 for both days. You can buy tickets here.