The Spirit of Jazz & Democracy

Improvisation ~ innovation ~ freedom

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Invention through total improvisation . . . the two musicians suggest they are interacting fully, listening intently and opening themselves                                              to any and every type of possibility - 4 stars

Paul Murphy and Larry Willis create music that is quite simply hefty . . . the pair's interaction is tight, unafraid, and thoroughly conscious." 



master musicians take jazz in a new direction

Larry Willis believes it was by “divine order” that he was musical director at Mapleshade Records when Paul Murphy came through.

The studio was in the historic mansion Mapleshade in Upper Marlboro, MD. Willis, a world-renowned jazz pianist, lived there with record producer Pierre Sprey. Murphy, a master drummer, practiced there daily.

“It was maybe the third time around when I was practicing,” Murphy recalls. “Larry was going up the steps, and I was playing. He came back down, and we just played. It was clear that we could go to a lot of different places freely, and we could listen and share our minds.”

To be clear: when Murphy and Willis play, it is a melding of the minds of masters. They play total improvisation -- spontaneous composition. The Grove Dictionary of American Music cites it as a new direction in jazz.

Paul Murphy began playing drums at age six. Inspired after meeting Gene Krupa, at age nine he began an 11-year tutelage with Joseph Leavitt, principal percussionist for the National Symphony Orchestra and director of percussion at Peabody Conservatory. He also befriended and studied with Louie Bellson.

By age 16, Murphy performed regularly around Washington, DC, with Duke Ellington’s bassist, Billy Taylor. In the early 1970’s, he established himself as a bandleader in San Francisco and met Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons at Keystone Korner. They invited him to New York. There he helped Rashied Ali (John Coltrane’s drummer) manage Ali’s Alley in SoHo. Eventually, he joined Jimmy Lyons' band. Lyons dubbed Murphy a master.

In 1981 Lyons recorded at CBS with Murphy’s band (Mary Anne Driscoll, Dewey Johnson, and Karen Borca). When Murphy took the group to RCA, the audiophile digital recording company Soundstream documented the session to record Murphy and Lyons as reference points for how drums and saxophone should sound.

In 1990, after Lyons’ death, Murphy returned to DC and became Mapleshade Records’ house drummer.

That’s when Paul Murphy met Larry Willis.

Bebop veteran and three-time Grammy nominee Larry Willis made his first splash at 19 with saxophonist Jackie McLean. He has since played and recorded with a list of jazz royalty including Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Lee Morgan, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Woody Shaw, Carmen McRae, Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, and Hugh Masekela.

Having played on over 300 records, 25 as a leader, Willis is widely regarded as one of the finest jazz pianists alive.

Willis’ virtuosity extends into rock and classical music. He spent seven years as keyboardist with Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and he’s composed for the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra and Florida Southern College Symphony Orchestra.

When Murphy and Willis met at Mapleshade, they spent considerable time together and eventually recorded. Sprey had grasped the significance of their collaboration and insisted on documenting it. Bebop and avant garde rarely mix. William Berlind described the standoff in a 2001 article for the Observer : “It's 'yes' to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and 'no' to post-60's jazz ...”

Thus, in jazz as in other domains there are traditionalists and modernists, conservatives and progressives. Many in jazz call for the preservation of what they hold dear: ragtime, swing, bop. Murphy and Willis share and embody the belief that artists must preserve and innovate in balance. Cherish the canon to find your distinctive voice. Art is innovation. Innovation fuels freedom. Free thinking and engaging others’ free thinking, with tolerance and peace, is true freedom.

Murphy and Willis radiate true freedom. The essence of jazz is improvisation, and their collaborative process of total improvisation is veritably psychic. A melding of minds.

“What Paul and I play is very simple,” Willis said. “All we do is listen to each other and react. That's how we live with one another. In our case it just happens to be expressed through musical instruments.”

Murphy added, “Our love of god and our love of each other is what creates the meditative state that brings forth the spirituality of music, which is made for communication and for people to interact through peaceful and loving acts. And that's why we sit down and play it.”

In a world of fake news, division, and war, we could use a little truth, peace, love, and freedom.

“all we really want to do is to be a part of that feeling in philosophy that talks about peace on earth and good will towards men,” willis said. “i think it is a very noble and simple way to live. i can only explain it up to a certain point. the rest of it you'll have to experience.”