Joe Venuti led several numbers in the studio but Richard Sudhalter singled out the violinist’s Blue Four sessions of the late twenties as “masterpieces, high points of New York chamber jazz ….a testament of excellence hard even to challenge, let alone surpass.” For me they stand out as ideal opportunities to hear Don Murray.
Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Trumbauer and Adrian Rollini joined Venuti, his right-hand man Eddie Lang on guitar and a revolving roster of pianists during this period (Justin Ring or Paul Grasselli also played percussion but their presence was slight enough for even the record label to classify this group as a quartet). Murray easily has the smallest recorded legacy of the Blue Four’s guest reeds, a consequence of his also having the shortest life.
Combined with the fact that Murray was usually buried in larger bands for most of his discography, these Blue Four sides become not just a boon for Murray fans but a valuable document of an under-recorded, apparently multifaceted musician. From his debut with the Blue Four, playing baritone saxophone and clarinet on “Penn Beach Blues,” he acts as soloist, reed section, bassist, color and contrast:
Moody and atmospheric, “Penn Beach Blues” alternates a harmonically arresting ensemble and a laidback blowing chorus. Murray adds a distinct sound from the outset, bottoming out the ensemble chords and adding ascending chromatic lines to connect them. His bright clarinet tone is instantly recognizable. So are the stacked arpeggios and loping eighth notes that characterized his playing regardless of instrument. He provides bass lines and syncopated rumbles for most of the reverse side but also earns two solo spots amidst this feature for the leader’s violin:
Murray’s first solo on “Four String Joe,” starts off uneasily, with a descending line that gains confidence and races towards a hot break and roaring finale. His clarinet is unusually and refreshingly spare, adding an attractive popping effect when it locks in with the rhythm section’s backbeat. Murray comes back on baritone for some moaning dialog with Venuti before switching back to clarinet and a unison tag with him, closing the performance with yet another unique sound.
The Blue Four’s variety of texture, form and mood belies any sense of there being “just” four players. They rarely rely upon the soloist plus rhythm, take-your-turn-improvising format. Instead, violin lead with guitar comping, guitar lead with violin harmony, guitar bass lines supporting soloist or ensemble, a capella piano, various combinations of call and response and other instrumental changeups make the quartet sound larger in terms of size as well as possibility. Apparently Okeh agreed: Venuti kept making Blue Four sides, even as jazz and dance bands had already started to grow much larger.
Venuti’s next session as a leader was another Blue Four date, with Murray back in the reed chair and Rube Bloom (in place of pianist Frank Signorelli) introducing a medium tempo “Dinah”:
Geoffrey Wheeler describes Murray’s baritone sax sound as a “medium-full, vibratoless sound that would have fit in well with the bop groups and big bands of the 1940s.” “Dinah” is a short but very revealing exploration of that sound. Murray’s tender introduction and verse, first solo then pared with Venuti’s double-stops, and his ability to accompany a small group of soft instruments without overwhelming them displays his versatility as well as his expressiveness. Murray could play hot but could also play, period.
Even on the second tune of the day, a breakneck feature for Venuti appropriately titled “The Wild Dog,” Murray makes an elegant (dare we say “Bixian?”) statement in halftime, built off of arching phrases, a bluesy break and light articulation. The record also begins with Murray arpeggiating the tense harmonies of the introduction, an instant touch of atmosphere:
Given that Murray was playing the first recording of this tune, his repeated note solo might have been a paraphrase of a melody co-written by Lang and Venuti. It’s easy to imagine Lang plucking something similar on his guitar. Yet the unissued take features a different solo using similar ideas, and a later record with Pete Pumiglio taking Murray’s place has an entirely different chorus. Murray may have been crafting just the right solo, as so many jazz musicians of the time also did to great effect. Either way, it’s a lyrical, well-conceived moment amidst Venuti’s virtuoso displays.
After two sessions leading big bands (both including Murray) and close to three months later, Venuti once again recorded with a Blue Four and brought Murray back for what would be his last appearance with the group. On baritone again for a fiery “The Man From The South,” he gets in a whirlwind of a solo, driving and dense, like a Bach invention soaked in gin, yet it’s his ensemble playing that nearly steals the show:
Murray’s darting phrases behind and between Venuti/Lang’s lead throughout the recording indicate how closely he may have been listening to bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini. Murray toys with the boundary between obbligato and bass lines in the same way that Rollini did when both played on the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang sessions. Murray makes the Blue Four sound fuller while adding momentum to it, splitting the difference between front line and rhythm section. The alternation between staccato and slurred phrases in the first chorus also shows Murray’s slick sense of detail.
Murray closes out his brilliant tenure with the Blue Four on “Pretty Trix” and two solos that resemble his work on “Four String Joe,” full of bright second and thirds and finger-twisting runs:
His tone on the head’s ensemble counterpoint is light, nearly to the point of transparency, very different from the dark, cavernous sound of his baritone and bass sax-playing contemporaries. It lets Venuti’s passagework and Lang’s plucking peek through, allowing exactly the type of a “finely wrought musical miniatures, harmonically and texturally rich…yet [leaving] plenty of latitude for improvisation” praised by Sudhalter. New York had its share of excellent reed players, some at least as busy as Murray, but Venuti and Murray had known one another since their time in Jean Goldkette’s orchestra, if not earlier. Venuti was probably not one to mince words and no doubt knew what he wanted. Murray in turn must have found the time to join him.
Less than a month after his last session with the Blue Four, Murray had started as a regular player with Ted Lewis, a job that would keep him incredibly busy and take him on the road to California, where he suffered the fatal accident that would kill him less than a year later. It’s hard to hear Murray in the many reed sections he recorded with during his short but teasingly fruitful career and it never seems like he got enough solos. These Blue Four sessions, just six sides and one alternate take, are a small but incredibly revealing part of the Murray discography.