The Mike Murley Quintet has been together for over ten years, and this is its fourth release as a group. Murley leads some of the finest musicians anywhere, and they are all Canadian. Their music is outstanding too, which makes any release worth salivating for. It is a moot point to say that each outing finds them in a more compact groove, but the ease with which they understand each other helps create an atmosphere where they can pick the thread and continue giving it cohesive direction.
The chemistry in the band becomes immediately apparent on “Creature of Habit.” Murley and Restivo lock in conversation, setting the tone for Murley on tenor and a gently swinging journey that changes shape and course, a takeoff point for MacLeod, whose flugelhorn brings in a luminous resolution that is picked by Restivo, who then creates a wellspring of his own.
There is quite nothing quite like a deep, warm ballad to light a glow. Murley fills “Santiago Reflections” with intense feeling, his structure detailed and shorn of excess—and with Jim Vivian on bass creating moments of subtle charm, this one makes a strong impact. The pulse perks up when they get “Extra Time” with Murley on the soprano. He is lithe and lean, a hint of New Orleans rising into the atmosphere, urged on by Ted Warren, and then the spell churned onward by Restivo, whose ministrations inject another dose of sparkle. Enjoy!
Another excellent set of material from Canadian jazz saxophonist Mike Murley.
The seven original compositions on offer are all worth your attention, but are really there to serve as a springboard for the solos which go from the good to the excellent.
The highlights are the free jazz of “The Split 2” and the ballads “Santiago Reflections” and “Open Segment” where the solos and the compositions mesh best with some exempary performances from Murley, John MacLeod on trumpet and flugelhorn, pianist Dave Restivo, bassist Jim Vivian and drummer Ted Warren.
The Globe and Mail
Mark Miller, 6 January 2004
A quick glance at the nominations for Canada’s 2004 National Jazz Awards finds Mike Murley the frontrunner as both musician and saxophonist of the year, while his quintet is listed in the acoustic group category and his recent CD with guitarist David Occhipinti, Duologue , is up for album of the year. Closer inspection reveals him to be implicated in nine more nominations, whether as a member of other bands, as a player on other CDs or as the co-owner of Cornerstone Records, one of the companies vying for label of the year honours.
Thirteen nominations, seven different categories. That’s as good, if unscientific, a measure as any available of the tenor and soprano saxophonist’s pre-eminence among this country’s jazz musicians.
“That’s … a lot,” Murley remarks, sounding pleasantly surprised by the tally. Understand that he’s not the type likely to have totalled the numbers up for himself — not the keen careerist who revels in every rise in his profile and sulks over every slip. But the numbers immediately lead to this question: Where can he go from here? The Canadian jazz scene has a bruisingly low ceiling, and the Nova Scotia-born Murley is only 42. He has years left in his career.
Well, he can go right on doing what he has always done; it’s certainly not the worst thing that could happen. And indeed, his quintet with trumpeter John MacLeod, pianist Dave Restivo, bassist Jim Vivian and drummer Ted Warren has just released its fifth CD, Extra Time , a sleek, post-boppish effort that’s an early candidate for a National Jazz Award in 2005. Extra Time is in fact long overdue, coming eight years after the quintet’s previous release, Conversation Piece . “It’s definitely the ripest record I’ve ever done,” Murley says, with a generous laugh, “but I think it still sounds fresh.”
The delay? There are a few reasons, he suggests, leaning forward on the couch that divides living room from dining room in his comfortable east Toronto home. The advent in 1996 of Metalwood, is certainly one.
Little could the saxophonist have known the extent to which the all-star fusion quartet would take on a life of its own when he first joined trumpeter Brad Turner, bassist Chris Tarry and drummer Ian Froman for an off-the-cuff session in a Vancouver studio. The band has now made six CDs altogether, the last two under contract to the industry giant Universal Music, with the obligatory, follow-up tours at home and abroad.
“Once Metalwood came along, it kind of took over,” Murley admits, as he moves on to the second reason for the hiatus between his quintet’s recordings. “And there was that ceiling that I felt the quintet had hit in this country. How many times can you go out on a tour? But the quintet has continued to grow, even though we’ve only played one or two gigs a year in the past eight years.”
Reason number three is probably Murley’s association at the turn of the century with guitarist Ed Bickert and bassist Steve Wallace in an elegant mainstream trio that won a Juno Award in 2002 for its CD Live at the Senator . Of course two aesthetics could hardly be less alike in jazz than those embraced by Bickert, a musician of enormous understatement, and by Metalwood, which has inevitably embraced some of fusion’s sonic excesses.
Tell Murley about it. “I remember the day I flew back from Vancouver after a Metalwood tour and went to Mezzetta [a small Toronto café] and played with Ed. That was heavy.”
With Bickert’s retirement from music in 2000, though, Murley has looked to his continuing affiliation with another National Jazz Award nominee, The Rob McConnell Tentet, to satisfy his mainstream inclinations. The aesthetic divide still yawns, of course, between McConnell’s smooth, little-big-band swing and Metalwood’s boisterous backbeat.
“It’s like speaking a different language,” Murley observes, of his approach to the two bands. “There are certain things that you can do in one language that you just can’t do in another.”
The language that he speaks with the McConnell band is, he proposes, the language of Lester Young, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins — melodic and swinging. The language of Metalwood is the language of Wayne Shorter and Dave Liebman — harsher and declamatory.
Two different languages, perhaps, but it was actually Metalwood’s Brad Turner, another musical polyglot, who hipped Murley to a 1957 recording, Count Basie at Newport , which featured a late-in-life Lester Young on one of his better nights. “I had studied Lester Young,” Murley remembers of his younger self, “I’d listened to him before, but I when heard that sound again, man , it just clicked. . . . For the next year, I didn’t listen to anything except Lester Young. I learned so much from him. And it was such a good reference point to have while I was playing with Ed.”
So it’s not as though Murley is spinning his wheels musically. He’s evolving as a stylist, and he’s playing in a broad range of settings, which also include drummer Barry Elmes’s quintet and pianist David Braid’s sextet, two more National Jazz Award nominees, as well as the east-coast Maritime Jazz Orchestra.
But mightn’t there be something else? Something that involves more than just Canada? Fifteen years ago, Murley did the “New York thing” that has been de rigueur for Canadian musicians of his generation. Has he ever second-guessed his decision to return?
“Maybe sometimes, but not really. A lot of the guys I was playing with down there are doing great, but that doesn’t mean I’d be doing all those things, too.” Those “guys” included such notable New York figures as trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and drummer Bill Stewart, who backed Murley at the 55 Bar — “the peak of my New York career,” he says now, chuckling at the recollection.
More recently, he held out some hope that the international exposure offered by Metalwood might open up other opportunities. “We were signed to a deal in New York, we had some distribution in Europe and we had people working for us,” Murley notes, slipping intriguingly into the past tense as he itemizes the reasons for this as-yet unfounded optimism. “Well,” he corrects himself, “we’re taking a little break right now. I’m not saying Metalwood’s never going to do anything again, but it’s time for a break.”
Yes, a rest can be as good as a change, and besides, it’s time to talk up the Murley quintet. Typically, though, the leader goes for the soft sell, tempering hype with humility. “It’s a great band that has played together for a long time, and you can’t replace that experience,” he begins, boldly enough. That’s the hype. Now here’s the humility. “It takes a long time to play this music,” he continues, his voice lightening. “I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years now and I’m just starting to figure out a few things …[Jim] Vivian and I have been playing together for 20 years. There’s something to be said for that.”
The Mike Murley Quintet (with David Braid spelling Dave Restivo at the piano), performs nightly at the Montreal Bistro in Toronto through Saturday.
Murley and David Occhipinti will appear on Jan. 14 at the Mezzetta Café. The National Jazz Awards will take place on Feb. 24 at the Winter Garden in Toronto.