The Blues? Overcoming Hard Times Through Swinging Elegance

The first sentence uttered by Albert Murray in “Murray Talks Music,” an insightful new book published by the University of Minnesota Press, is a concise distillation of his views on the blues. He’s speaking in 1994 with the jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who asks a leading question about the primary motive of a blues musician.

“Well, the objective of the blues musician is to get rid of the blues,” Mr. Murray answers, “and of course you stomp the blues not with utmost violence but with elegance.”

The remark strikes a resounding chord for anyone familiar with Mr. Murray’s work, especially his landmark book, “Stomping the Blues.” And it points toward a related idea, that this elegance finds truest expression in an aesthetic of swinging resilience — which is to say, in jazz.

Mr. Murray, the cultural critic who died in 2013 at 97, explored many variations on this theme, in writing and in conversation. As a founder and longtime board member of Jazz at Lincoln Center, he also saw it put into action. That organization, under the direction of Mr. Marsalis, has always regarded Mr. Murray’s blues philosophy as a bedrock. It’s no accident that Mr. Murray’s legacy is now largely understood in musical, as well as literary, terms.

Jaimeo Brown, whose recent album is “Work Songs.” CreditRudy Lu

His centennial was last week, and among the commemorations is a book party and discussion for “Murray Talks Music,” on Wednesday at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Less officially, his ideas find traction on two excellent new albums by tenor saxophonists: J. D. Allen’s “Americana” and Noah Preminger’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” Together with recent statements like “Work Songs,” by the drummer Jaimeo Brown, they attest to Mr. Murray’s living influence on jazz.

The notion of the blues as a form of transcendence, which Mr. Murray developed in intellectual dialogue with the novelist Ralph Ellison and others (notably, the literary theorist Kenneth Burke), finds direct purchase in the music of Mr. Brown. Transcendence is the name of his band, which on “Work Songs” often plays against field recordings: a track called “Be So Glad” builds a modern fantasia over a sample of a chain gang, recorded by Alan Lomax at the Parchman prison farm in Mississippi.

Jaimeo Brown Transcendence – “Be So Glad” Video by Jaimeo Brown Transcendence

Mr. Brown, 38, has ties to Jazz at Lincoln Center but also a foothold in hip-hop and R&B, the main field of activity for his producing partner, Chris Sholar. Along with historical samples, they find a place for living singers, including a group of quilt makers from Gee’s Bend, Ala. The album itself suggests a patchwork of old and new, with an implicit claim for continuity. There are moments when the premise strains, but at its best — in a version of the prison ballad “Lazarus,” for instance, with a prayerful tenor solo by Mr. Allen — the synthesis feels natural.

Some of that has to do with Mr. Allen, 43, whose “Americana” is a rigorous engagement with the blues, as a feeling and a form. (Its subtitle is “Musings on Jazz and Blues.”) There’s just one refurbished artifact on the album: “Another Man Done Gone,” a haunting elegy credited to Vera Hall, who was recorded by Lomax in the 1930s. Mr. Allen and his superb rhythm team, the bassist Gregg August and the drummer Rudy Royston, play it with a troubled, rolling gravitas.

Elsewhere, rather than sampling or even covering old material, they perform originals composed in a roots cast of mind. Mr. Allen isn’t especially drawn to high concept as an artist, but he does powerful work here — partly by framing the blues in personally relevant terms, using a modern harmonic language defined by John Coltrane. The contours of a tune like “Bigger Thomas” reflect Coltrane’s innovations in blues form, revisited by a dauntless heir.

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J.D. Allen, whose new album is “Americana.” CreditRebecca Meek

But Mr. Allen is pursuing something more ambitious than a gloss on “Coltrane Plays the Blues.” The cover of “Americana” features a sepia photograph of African-American workers in a cotton field; one of its more memorable themes, “Cotton,” is a waltz with a strong, folklike melody, easy to picture as a song with lyrics. The title track unfurls as a soulful dirge, inviting thoughts about darkness and oppression, before leading into “Lightnin’,” which uses a dirge as a springboard — a perfect illustration of Mr. Murray’s vision for the blues, which shows up in the liner notes.

“Lightnin’” is obviously a nod to Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose version of “Trouble in Mind” receives a spare, mournful reinvention on Mr. Preminger’s new album. Every other track has its historical antecedent: The album derives its title from the Blind Willie Johnson tune, recalled here in a spirit of bleary acceptance. Mr. Preminger, 29, sees the Delta blues as a new challenge, raw material for his band, with the trumpeter Jason Palmer, the bassist Kim Cass and the drummer Ian Froman.

Mr. Preminger, like Mr. Allen, has a dark, dry sound on tenor, and an instinctive resistance to cliché. He’s working here with a fixed repertory, but his band locates a flow within that framework: On Charley Patton’s “Spoonful Blues,” he and Mr. Palmer emulate the magically loose rapport between Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. “Hard Times Killin’ Floor Blues,” by Skip James, becomes a furious expedition, threatening to fly off the rails. Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” assumes a more somber clip, briefly shaping up as a showcase for Mr. Palmer.

What Mr. Murray would think of these albums is unknowable. But, as he once put it in conversation with Paul Devlin, the editor of “Murray Talks Music,” the idea of accepting and overcoming tough circumstances is an adaptable frame.

“Resilience, or swinging, is the ultimate achievement,” Mr. Murray said then, in 2003. “The achievement of elegance is the highest thing that a human being can do.”

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