It's an old debate: Is jazz best understood in terms of musical styles or in terms of personalities?
Saxophonist David Murray's opening night of a four-night run at the Jazz Bakery Wednesday argues firmly for the latter. The emotive, over-the-top tenorman has so much personality that he's a category unto himself.
Fronting his trio of the last couple years--bassist Kelly Roberty and drummer Brad Edwards--Murray frequently whipped an enthusiastic audience into shouts, cheers and even standing ovations with his hyperactive, tonally expansive attack. Even such attractive, uncomplicated themes as "Flowers for Albert," Murray's tribute to the late Albert Ayler, exploded during improvisational sections in sounds that spoke emphatically of Murray's joys, sorrows and frustrations.
Despite the shrieks, honks and caterwauls, Murray's play always possessed a sense of control. No matter how wild the phrases or piercing the tonal quality, Murray maintained a trace of flow, maintaining the barest thread of rhythmic or melodic current. This ploy guaranteed that no matter how far out the saxophonist traveled, the audience was able to come along.
Sax trios, minus the harmonic guidance of a keyboard, tend to be a hard listen. But Murray's crew made it easy. Bassist Roberty presented an expansive, bottom-hugging foundation while drummer Edwards delivered equally broad rhythmic patter. And Murray's dense style of play left no harmonic stone unturned.
Murray proved equally extroverted playing bass clarinet on a tribute to Satchel Paige titled "When the Monarchs Come to Town." And his warm and glowing ballad play on "The Desegregation of Our Children" was as moving as that on his up-tempo pieces. His best work came on blues-flavored pieces, notably cornetist-composer Bobby Bradford's "Woodshed Etude" (Murray, now based in New York, studied under Bradford at Pomona College in the early '70s).
Hearing Murray's trio is not for the faint of heart. But there are few players capable of both wildly baring their souls while maintaining a close relationship with their audience. Murray is one of the music's strongest personalities.
* The David Murray Trio plays the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City; tonight and Saturday, 8:30 p.m. $20. (310) 271-9039.