Initially an inheritor of an abstract-expressionist improvising style originated in the 1960s by such saxophonists as Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, David Murray eventually evolved into something of a mainstream tenorist, playing standards with conventional rhythm sections. However, Murray's readings of the old chestnuts are vastly different from interpretations by bebop saxophonists of his generation. Murray's sound is deep, dark, and furry with a wide vibrato-reminiscent of such swing-era tenorists as Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. And his approach to chord changes is unique. Although it's apparent that he's well-versed in harmony, Murray seldom adheres faithfully to the structure of a tune. He's adapted the expressive techniques of his former free-jazz self (slurred glissandi, indefinite pitches, ambiguous rhythms, altissimo flights, etc.) to his straight-ahead playing, with good results. He'll plow right through a composition like "Round Midnight", hitting just enough roots, thirds, fifths, and sevenths to define the given harmonies, then filling every other available space with non-chord tones that may or may not resolve "properly". In other words, he plays "wrong" notes, in the same way that Eric Dolphy played "wrong" notes. Like Dolphy, Murray makes it work by dint of an unwavering conviction. The sheer audacity of his concept, the passionate fury of his attack, and the spontaneity of his lines-in other words, the manifest success of his aesthetic-make questions of right and wrong irrelevant.
Murray's parents were musical; his mother played piano and his father guitar. In his youth, Murray played music in church with his parents and two brothers. He was introduced to jazz while a student in the Berkeley school system, playing alto sax in a school band. When he was thirteen he played in a local group called the Notations of Soul. Hearing Sonny Rollins inspired Murray to switch from alto to tenor. He attended Pomona College, where he studied with former Ornette Coleman sideman, the trumpeter Bobby Bradford. Around this time, he was influenced by the writer Stanley Crouch, whom he met at Pomona. Murray moved to New York at the age of 20, during the city's "loft jazz" era-a time when free jazz found a home in deserted industrial spaces and other under-valued bits of urban real estate below 14th street. Murray and Crouch opened their own loft space, which they called Studio Infinity. Crouch occasionally played drums in Murray's trio with bassist Mark Dresser. In a relatively short time, Murray (with help from his unofficial publicity agent, Crouch) acquired a reputation as a potential great. Murray's early work was exceedingly raw, based as it was on the example of Ayler, who had a penchant for multiphonics, distorted timbres, extremes of volume, and forays into the horn's uppermost reaches and beyond. He made his first albums in 1976, Flowers for Albert (India Navigation) and Low Class Conspiracy (Adelphi) with a rhythm section of bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Phillip Wilson. Also in 1976, Murray became, with Julius Hemphill, liver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet. Around this time Murray was commissioned by theatrical impresario Joseph Papp to assemble a big band, which enjoyed a degree of critical success. Out of the big band came the formation of an octet, which provided him a platform for his increasingly ambitious compositions. In the '80s, Murray performed with his octet, and various small bands, recording mostly for the Italian Black Saint label. His octet records of the time-though very roughly executed-showed him to be a talented (if unformed) composer. Murray's recording activity reached nearly absurd levels in the '80s and '90s; probably no contemporary jazz musician has led more dates on more labels. It was in the '80s that Murray began relying more on the standard jazz repertoire, especially in his small ensemble work. As he got older, the wilder elements of that style were toned down or refined. Murray incorporated free jazz gestures into a more fully rounded voice that also drew on the mainstream of the jazz improvising tradition. The influence of his swing- and bop-playing elders became stronger, even as the passionate abandon and spontaneity that marked his early work declined. On the other hand, his attention to the craft of playing the horn increased exponentially. Although he ceased being a pacesetter, Murray became an inimitable stylist. By the time he turned forty, the relative predictability of his soloing style was offset by his increased skills as a composer. In this area, Murray still seemed capable of breaking new ground.
- Chris Kelsey (All Music Guide)