This review is from new contributor Dominic Fragman, a drummer and student of Paul Murphy’s. Look for more of his writing in these pages soon. – CA
Innovation requires unimaginable knowledge, ability and devotion. It is no easy feat to move away from the convenience of a pre-existing groundwork to serve a unique concept. However, doing so is inherent in jazz. That is why veteran musicians, drummer, Paul F. Murphy, and pianist, Larry Willis, display the characteristics of pioneers on their new duo release Foundations. The record dances and stomps along with twelve completely improvised compositions. As a student of Murphy’s, I was fortunate enough to be present for the recording of the album and able to gain a clearer understanding of the concepts that fuel the compositional mindset behind the work.
Foundations is a follow up to the duo’s 2008 release, Exposé, and the pair’s third such recording. On the present album, Murphy and Willis use a creative approach to structure that draws from both the avant-garde and bebop worlds. The roots of this curious duo entangle harmoniously. Willis’ 40-year-long career began with the likes of Jackie McLean and currently has him on the international road with drummer Jimmy Cobb’s Kind of Blue Tribute Band. As such, Willis dexterously constructs impromptu motifs derived from bop, freely and cohesively beside Murphy. Though, just as often as he swings a brush soaked with these modes, he slides and bursts into an exciting and unanticipated vocabulary. Between Willis’ background and ideas, Foundations is kept from quickly flying too far “out.” Rather there is an exciting new perspective added to the endeavor of free improvisation.
Willis opens the record steaming down a track of unpredictable, unpremeditated interaction. Murphy’s cymbals and bongos highlight Willis’ initial one note piano roll. The duo’s sheer ability and focus allow for incredible unified improvisations. Tunes like “Preter” and “June Jump” are evidence of their collective intuition. As a team they work closely together, nimbly constructing clean lines and phrases. Their conversations are articulate and informative seminars, rather than directionless ramblings. “Khafre” and “Equinox” are excited engineerings of buoyant aural mosaics where piano and drums command the presence of a quintet and maintain the weight of a semi-truck in zero gravity. “Morel” and “Composite Drive” paint flowing waves of space and sound, shifting direction throughout in a showcase of control and consciousness. The lyrical “Dance Pointe” traverses tempo freely, from walks to sprints. In the studio, Murphy and Willis exchange laughs of satisfaction and enjoyment after each track, stopping occasionally for a breath in-between.
Murphy, coming out of altoist Jimmy Lyons’ band and having led several other groups, is an established member of the avant-garde. He conceptualizes the drums as an instrument that uniquely creates and shapes composition. His rhythms are circular and display what he terms an understanding of “music as a rotating sphere, resulting from harmonic and rhythmic intersections in time and space.” For Murphy, a single note offers several possibilities in both the direction and feel of a tune. By accenting a single note, the music can be shoved forward springing, yanked into a backwards run, kicked into an upward climb or dropped into a diving descent. Each piece on Foundations demonstrates these possibilities with a rhythmic push-pull that keeps the music afloat. As a result, the compositions sound as if they are circumnavigating a sphere that encompasses much more than a single piano and drum set. Foundations fuses bebop and the avant-garde into a fresh approach, an alluring and inspiring nod to both tradition and the cyclic contemporary mode.
~ Dominic Fragman