Sunny Murray 1937 – 2017



Drummer Sunny Murray, who passed away on 7 December, will forever be associated with the 'New Thing' movement of the mid-1960s, given the decisive contribution he made to the music of several of its most revered spearheads, above all Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. Born in Idabel, Oklahoma but an adopted New Yorker, Murray was a self-taught musician who developed his own idiosyncratic style of playing, which saw him use the drums to create startling textures and thunderously powerful percussive figures rather than keep straight time. His originality was a perfect match for the aforementioned innovators, both of whom were intent on challenging prevailing concepts of harmony, melody and rhythm, certainly as it was enshrined by the bebop school. Murray's work on Ayler's classic trio sets Ghosts and Spiritual Unity was pivotal in extending the expressive range of his instrument and was highly effective in a small group setting, where openness and spontaneity were at a premium.

Murray went on to play with many other acclaimed improvisers and composers such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, though his recordings as leader, first and foremost An Even Break (Never Give A Sucker) and Homage To Africa, both cut for BYG in 1970, are notable statements. He spent a great deal of his career in Europe, striking up creative partnerships with French pianist François Tusques as well as British musicians, saxophonist Tony Bevan and double-bassist John Edwards. The appearances Murray made with the two aforementioned players on stage and in the studio – see their 2004 CD Home Cooking In The UK – were also important insofar as they gave new audiences an opportunity to experience firsthand the energy and charisma of one of the original architects of what is referred to as 'free jazz'. In the final stretch of his career Murray proved irrepressibly adventurous, working with the likes of the Afro-Cuban oriented ensemble Sonic Liberation Front as well as Louie Belogenis. Sunny's Tine Now, the documentary made by Antoine Prum in 2008, is an excellent portrait of a rich, complex personality as well as an audacious musician.

– Kevin Le Gendre