Sunny Murray, Drummer Who Pioneered the Flowing Pulse of Free Jazz, Has Died at 81

Dec 9, 2017

Sunny Murray, an improvising drummer who pioneered a radical and influential approach to rhythm, died on Thursday night in Paris. He was 81.

His death was confirmed by his half-brother, saxophonist Conny Murray. The cause was multiple organ failure.

As one of the leading figures of the free-jazz movement in the 1960s, Murray forged a revolutionary style that freed him from the drummer’s traditional timekeeping role. Instead, he supplied a turbulent undercurrent and combustive volatility that made him an equal voice in any pathfinding ensemble. His playing discovers intricate textures within a tempestuous deluge, both overwhelming and richly detailed.

The cover of Sunny Murray's self-titled 1966 album, on ESK-Disk

Best known for his groundbreaking work with pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Albert Ayler, Murray also backed a wide range of other intrepid improvisers, and performed and recorded as a leader through most of his five-decade career.

All of his musical partnerships thrived on the way Murray shifted the ground beneath his collaborators’ feet, while subtly punctuating or forcefully colliding with their expressions.

Speaking with Dan Warburton in 2000, he explained his desire “to take myself to where pure improvisation becomes music, where a beat becomes music. I'd gotten to the point where, as my music changed, I didn't want to play a lot of beats – I wanted to get more from the beat than just the beat.”

Murray developed his theories through an intensive communion with Taylor, whose violent, percussive attack and severe tonal shifts necessitated an untethering of the rhythmic drive. Their breakthrough can be heard on recordings from Copenhagen’s Café Montmartre in November 1962.

On the title track of Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, reissued in 1997 on Revenant Records, Murray begins with stuttering accents that grow increasingly clamorous and eventually cohere into a tsunami of sheer momentum, lifting, propelling and unsettling Taylor and saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. At one moment he batters them forward with monolithic force, the next slamming on the brakes, leaving at them suspended in mid-air.

James Marcellus Arthur “Sunny” Murray was born on September 21, 1936, in Idabel, Oklahoma and raised in Philadelphia. He moved to New York at 19, living in cheap Bowery hotels until he chanced upon a drum set left behind at an after-hours club following a police raid.

Coming from the Philly R&B scene, he spent a few years trying his hand at bebop, and sitting in with musicians like Jackie McLean, Donald Byrd and James Moody. But within four years, he had bonded with Taylor and veered off into unexplored new paths, entering the studio for the first time in 1960 for the sessions that produced The World of Cecil Taylor. (Murray’s contributions appeared on a follow-up release, Air.)

“Murray had begun to rehearse with Taylor at a time when he himself was not yet committed to a definite style,” writes Ekkehard Jost in his 1974 book Free Jazz. “Thus he was relatively untroubled by traditional percussion techniques and – perhaps for that very reason – adapted very quickly to Taylor’s conception of rhythm.”

Murray himself explained it more simply. “I started dealing with the natural sounds that are in the instrument, and the pulsations that are in that sound,” he told Clifford Allen in 2003. “The rhythm is in the sound and not in the beat.”

Murray met Ayler in Sweden while on tour with Taylor’s trio and, in the space of less than two years, played on the saxophonist’s most foundational works. His blend of subtlety and muscle can be heard on “Ghosts: First Variation,” from the landmark 1964 ESP-Disk album Spiritual Unity.

Murray’s cymbals dance and chatter, cascade gently or attack with a mad-dog ferocity. He draws on the combination of nursery-rhyme sweetness and raw aggression that characterized Ayler’s music, working as both precise colorist and bold provocateur.

Having sharpened his focus through those two seminal experiences, Murray made his debut as a leader in 1965 with Sonny’s Time Now, recorded for LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Jihad label, and featuring Ayler, Don Cherry and Henry Grimes.

He followed that with a self-titled album for ESP-Disk the following year, which included a fellow Philadelphian, the saxophonist Byard Lancaster. Then he recorded the European summit session Big Chief in 1969, following a move to Paris.

After a few years Murray returned to the States, maintaining an eclectic and thriving career over the next two decades. He could match the incendiary bursts of powerhouse players like saxophonists David Murray and Archie Shepp, or take more exploratory excursions with vibraphonist Khan Jamal, bassist William Parker or violinist Billy Bang. He returned to Europe in the mid-1990s, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.

Murray often scoffed at drummers who crowded themselves behind massive, tricked-out kits. Throughout his life, he employed a basic jazz kit, relying on his own touch and instincts to conjure a spectrum of sounds and dynamics from minimal resources.

In recent years, he worked most often with a London-based trio featuring saxophonist Tony Bevan and bassist John Edwards. Videos of that unit show him still fragmenting the rhythmic core of a piece, maintaining a steely spine to the music while goading and startling his compatriots.

In addition to Conny Murray (who was born Neil Turner), Murray is survived by his longtime companion, Isabelle Soumilliard, who cared for him in his final days; three sons, James, Jr., Haniff and Oforie; a daughter, Pia; and two grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his older sister, Mayrene Newton, whose grandson is trumpeter Farnell Newton.

Correction: An earlier version of this post omitted a surviving family member, James Murray, Jr.