Don Murray’s solo on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette’s band came as a complete surprise. It wasn’t just being used to hearing him on baritone sax with Goldkette and on tenor with Ted Lewis, along with his clarinet in both settings. That would have just made my hearing a tenor sax spot for Murray with Goldkette a novelty.
The sound of this Murray tenor, so rich, so plummy, so far removed from the piping, reedy solos in the instrument’s upper-medium to high registers with Lewis was the real surprise. The first (through about fifth or sixth) time I heard it, it left me scratching my head. Yet it is in fact a tenor saxophone.
Small wonder since Murray was not even playing tenor sax. Blame my car speakers or blame Murray’s light, transparent as cheesecloth tone on baritone (and thank Albert Haim for educating me): So many baritone players of this stylistic era played the big horn with a big, burly tone, thick vibrato and percussive articulation. Compare Bobby Davis, Harry Carney, Jimmy Dorsey, crunching Stump Evans, massive Cecil Scott (on “Harlem Shuffle“), Joe Walker, or bass-sax like Jack Washington with Murray, and the difference becomes clear to the point of world-altering. Links with Murray’s frequent collaborator Frank Trumbauer are tempting. Yet the C melody saxist’s light timbre dovetails with a light, relaxed approach to improvisation. “Tram” often seems to ease into his lines, even at breakneck tempos. Murray’s approach was rarely easygoing. Even on “Blue River,” his wafer dark tone spirals into a rapid-fire kineticism. If Frank Trumabuer looks ahead to the cooler sounds of Lester Young And Miles Davis, Murray is firmly, and in hindsight refreshingly, part of The Jazz Age’s nervous energy.
Murray doesn’t cut “Blue River” to ribbons, yet well past paraphrasing it, he turns Joseph Meyer & Alfred Bryan’s repeated note theme into a busy, bouncing ballet of arpeggios, intervals, runs and an ecstatic in-tempo break after the ensemble bridge. His solo is halfway between complete abstraction and the type of recomposition Bix Beiderbecke (here buried in the section) was known for.
Decades of hearing Trumbauer’s own recording of “Blue River,” with Murray in the background and Bix Beiderbecke forever in the foreground, have made it all too familiar to generations of jazz listeners. Murray’s variation resembles cutting lines from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead into acts of Hamlet. Goldkette’s arrangement may or may not be as hip as Trumbauer’s but for twenty-four bars Murray makes the tune an event. As for my own
naive guesses initial impressions of Murray’s choice of instrument, I now know better but see the value in trusting one’s “gut” even as I continue to learn more about this often overlooked player. That’s a jazz musician for you.