David Murray “Black Saint” Quartet and the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2008.

On consecutive nights, the Hub played host to big names from the States: on Tuesday, the David Murray’s “Black Saint” Quartet, and on Wednesday, the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars.

It was an interesting juxtaposition: Murray is, to quote the Bible, “the most formidable tenor soloist of his generation”; the Dizzy All Stars (sans Dizzy, mostly because he died fifteen years ago) reflecting an earlier time, when bebop was revolutionary.

I had seen Murray play a couple of times – but not for about twenty years. Still, like everyone else in the hall, I gave him a star’s welcome – several minutes of applause. He had a youngish band with him – the names (Lafayette Gilchrist – piano; Jaribu Shahid – bass; and Hamid Drake – drums) meant nothing to me. And they started right into it, belting out a raucous tune.

It did nothing for me. Nothing at all. Murray’s tenor sax sounded like a strangled goose, honking away. He was fast – he had a lot of technique – but it communicated nothing to me except that the notes were spilling out, falling in all directions. The band powered behind him, driven by Drake thrashing away (he was loud). Gilchrist’s piano was laying down subtle and not-so subtle chords behind him, and Shahid was plucking awat solidly.

But so what? It left me completely unmoved: it was just a torrent of notes.

They seemed to take themselves so seriously. Murray dedicated one number to “the next president of the United States – Barack Obama!” (everyone cheered); he introduced another – a much softer, slower number featuring his rather lovely bass clarinet playing (the first time I felt engaged during the show) – as the theme tune to a TV series about racism.

After that, Murray was back on tenor, strangling a whole flock of geese as the notes poured – he was very fast. Finally, after an interminable drum solo – jeez, it was loud, fast and boring full of sound and fury, signifying nothing – I had had enough; I left.

I had sat there for an hour, waiting to be entertained or moved. Maybe if I had heard more bass clarinet? Whatever it was – whether it was me or the band, I had heard enough. I reckoned it must be me – the rest of the audience seemed enthralled, loudly cheering the drum solo, hollering between numbers whilst I was left cold: maybe some mood had enveloped me in a fog, obscuring the music.

Either way, my mood lifted considerably when I left.

By the way, before the band came on, they asked that no photographs of any kind were taken; so I left my camera in my bag. Which is a shame – I was looking forward to adding the most formidable tenor soloist of his generation to my collection of saxophonists!

* * *

Following Murray, I didn’t have hopes for the Dizzy All Stars: my expectations were very low. How wrong I was: within a couple of beats they had won my heart.

Perhaps this was down to familiarity: just seconds after coming on stage, they launched into a blistering version of “Salt Peanuts”, and after that they could do no wrong.

The band consisted of James Moody on tenor, Slide Hampton on trombone, with Greg Gisbert having the unenviable task of taking Dizzy’s role on trumpet and a rhythm section of John Lee on electric bass, Eric Gunnison on piano and Vince Ector on drums.

The energy with which they performed was astonishing, given that Moody is 83 and Hampton, 76, had suffered a stroke in June. True, Hampton’s playing wasn’t at its best, but Moody was on storming form, playing.

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They didn’t play anything else with the verve and speed of their opening number, but by then they had the audience. A stream of standards followed from Gillespie’s heyday. Gisbert was excellent, but it really seemed Moody’s show: he kept up a banter with the audience, sang a couple of songs (including a rap, surprisingly), and belted out some great sax solos.

So why was this so much more fun than the previous night? Well, it looked like they all wanted to be there: they brought a real warmth to the stage. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. And they played fun tunes. It was – well, just fun.

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