The profound partnership of poly-stylistic saxophonist David Murray and transcendent percussionist/ neo-griot Kahil El’Zabar reaches beyond musicianship to laugh, cry and talk straight to the soul.
One of jazz’s most powerful duos will finish off the Kozmic Picnik, the avant-garde arm of the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival Saturday afternoon next to MSU’s Broad Art Museum. “We have a way of playing like a whole band but we’re only two people,” Murray said.
Both are towering figures in the world of avant-garde and free jazz, though Murray laughs off the label.
“Who plays that? Why’d they get me to come in? I don’t play that kind of stuff!” he said.
Murray, 62, may be the deepest diver alive among jazz saxophonists, alert and tuned in to every era of the music, from the Ellington era of Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves through Albert Ayler’s speaking in tongues and Ornette Coleman’s brazen breaks from harmony and structure.
To reach all of these realms, Murray deploys an astounding range, from subterranean murmurings on bass clarinet to blinding sunward thrusts on tenor saxophone.
A long list of recordings and gigs has made Murray one of the most prolific and fecund artists on the planet. He has recorded over 300 CDs in dozens of different settings, from solo to big band to the World Saxophone Quartet, of which he is a founding member, yet he seems incapable of repeating himself. On the contrary, he still acts like he’s just getting the hang of it.
“My clarinet has a way to go yet, but people say I’m playing as well on tenor as I’ve ever played,” he said. Toward the end of a recent gig with his quintet at New York’s Village Vanguard, Murray augmented his quintet to an octet, a difficult format he conquered in the 1990s. He recently moved back to New York after decades of living in Europe.
“All the playing and living I’ve been doing, all the tours and practicing — it’s all starting to come together for me,” he said. “I practice a lot, but I’m performing a lot too, and that makes a big difference.”
The on-and-off collaboration between Murray and El’Zabar goes back over 25 years and has heated up again recently. At the end of May, their coruscating energy upstaged some of the larger bands at Brooklyn’s Vision Festival.
“There’s a lot of freedom in that setting,” Murray said. “When you’re playing with percussion it’s quite different, the timbres of the skin, they give you more freedom than you have when you’re playing with a piano player.”
But El’Zabar is no ordinary percussionist. He toggles from the tight discipline of a jazz drummer like Max Roach or Elvin Jones to a shamanistic, raw directness.
“He is a visionary,” Murray said. “I work with a lot of poets.”(Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed are among Murray’s spoken-word collaborators.) “He’s somewhere between an orator, a Zenlike musician and singer, but then he plays percussion. He’s got a lot of different things that make him a very unique and special artist.”
Murray and El’Zabar might drift tranquilly on a golden sea of oscillating chords, lulled by the gentle plinks of an African thumb piano, or conjure a sudden storm of sound with flashes of lightning and generating a sudden compulsion to dance barefoot.
When the feeling is right, El’Zabar is moved to sing and chant while accompanying himself on drums.
“Wait until you hear him start to channel,” Murray said.
“He gets into this thing where it’s brand new, in the moment, almost like it’s coming from somewhere else.”
When the duo reaches fever pitch, Murray’s horn spikes up and down, tearing at the fabric of the music, while El’Zabar slips into a zone of uninhibited communion with unseen spirits.
“He puts it into words in a spontaneous kind of way,” Murray said. “It’s almost like the same way we improvise as players. He’s preaching, but he’s not preaching — he’s not even saying the words, but the words are coming through his body and out of his mouth.”
Murray plans to continue working with El’Zabar and with his own quintet, but he wants to keep all his options open.
Despite the odds against it, he hopes to put another big band together.
“We’ll probably make a statement in New York, but I don’t know about traveling with it,” he said. “It’s hard.”
One way for Murray to get around the difficulties of keeping a big band going is to bring a set of arrangements to a town, as he did recently in Baltimore, and draft local musicians for a few rehearsals and a gig.
“I’d like to do that in 26 cities and see if it works,” he said.
MSU, with its burgeoning jazz studies program and world famous director, Rodney Whitaker, seems like a good place to bust out a big-band Murray blowout.
“Rodney Whitaker’s great,” Murray said. “Put me down. I’d love to be a part of that.”
Summer Solstice Jazz Festival 4 p.m.-1 a.m. June 23; noon- 1 a.m. June 24 FREE Downtown East Lansing (517) 319-6980, eljazzfest.com