Artists express themselves–their tastes, interests, limitations–not only in the projects they choose to do, but in the projects they choose not to do. Restraint often shows good taste, or at least good judgment. Unfortunately, in today’s shriveled support system, artists are forced to look hard at opportunities they might otherwise pass by and to shake hands with people they might actually loathe. Beggars make different choices.

That’s how I explain David Murray’s recent, seemingly inexplicable rash of bad taste. Back in the 70s and 80s Murray was an uncompromising musician. He released important solo records like Conceptual Saxophone (Cadillac) and searing trio records like 3-D Family (Hat Art). His octet records, Ming and Home (both Black Saint), show how much thinking he was doing, both as a player and as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. Then, at the beginning of this decade, Murray hooked up with Bob Thiele and his Red Baron label.

In the 1960s Thiele produced wonderful records with John Coltrane, Bobby Bradford, Oliver Nelson, and others. Now he makes bad taste his main order of business. He’s so without humility that he calls a group in which he doesn’t play the “Bob Thiele Collective” (yes, Murray plays horn in that ensemble). Thiele records musicians playing his own (mediocre at best) compositions so that he can collect composer royalties. He records people of Murray’s high caliber playing with his (mediocre at best) singer wife, Teresa Brewer. His label logo sports a little picture of him, dressed up as the Red Baron, giving the thumbs-up. And about the time Jurassic Park came out he succeeded in convincing David Murray to call a record Jazzosaurus Rex. Bad taste is timeless.

Murray has continued to make substantive records at the same time, including a fantabulous duo with 60s drum pioneer Milford Graves, appropriately dubbed Real Deal (DIW). And some of Murray’s best work in the last few years has been with Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar. His recent appearance with El’Zabar, bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut, and pianist Jodie Christian proved that those ill-conceived encounters with Thiele haven’t doused his fire or dimmed his imagination.

In the atrium atmosphere of the Belmont Hotel, Kahil kicked into a deep, heavy swing right away, leading into an overdriven cymbal solo. El’Zabar’s “E. Parker” is a fairly loose lament for the late Chicago tenorman E. Parker MacDougal; the percussionist kept it taut on an earth drum, quietly counting out the tune’s nine beats, over which Favors held a funky bass figure and Murray ranged widely on bass clarinet. With the Ellington evergreen “In a Sentimental Mood,” however, Murray hit full stride, his gorgeous, Ben Webster-esque tenor tone glowing like a fanned ember.

Christian is an odd choice for this kind of group. Though he was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians back in the mid-60s, he’s buttered his bread since then with a jazz-lounge existence, serving as one of the Windy City’s premier bop ‘n’ ballads sidemen. When he plays in more open-ended settings with Roscoe Mitchell or Kahil, he often sounds out of place, his pedal-heavy lyricism and harmonic persistence not quite in keeping with his surroundings. In this case, though, he worked remarkably well, especially on Murray’s classic “Hope Scope”–Christian’s sustained thunder and sudden keyboard sweeps perfectly augmented the saxophonist’s bagpipe-ish drone and darting, superimposed melody and El’Zabar’s constant pulsing thud. He reminded me of pianist Bobby Few, especially of his maniacal Paris trios with tenor saxist Frank Wright. Out of the ashes of “Hope Scope” rose a brief, epiphanic bass crescendo from Favors, who sounded great all night long.

The first set closed with a languorous, mbira-based version of “Ol’ Man River,” with Favors and El’Zabar sketching the skeletal melody and Christian and Murray fleshing it out. The second set was less inspired. On El’Zabar’s “Ornette,” Murray wailed with his trademark altissimo, but it somehow lacked spark. In any case, despite sometimes severe sound problems–feedback is absolutely unwanted at an intimate jazz event–the sparkling first set served to enlarge the scope of our city’s jazz hope. Events like this keep the jazzosaurs and other bad-taste monsters at bay.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.