Sunny Murray was one of the early avant-garde's most inventive and influential drummers, doing a great deal to establish the role of the drums in free improvisation. Although Murray could swing as hard as anyone, he often abandoned the drums' traditional timekeeping role. Instead of playing a steady beat, he might punctuate and color behind the soloist's lines, or engage in dialogues with the rest of the ensemble, commenting and conversing with an open-eared sense of give and take. Born James Marcellus Arthur Murray in Idabel, Oklahoma in 1936, Sunny began drumming at age nine and moved to New York in 1956. At first, he played with traditional artists like Red Allen and Willie The Lion Smith, but he soon branched out into more adventurous territory with Jackie McLean and Ted Curson. His big break, however, came when he joined Cecil Taylor's group in 1959, which allowed him to improvise at a far more advanced level. While touring Europe with Taylor, Murray met Albert Ayler, and wound up joining his band in 1964; through 1967, Murray appeared on most of the saxophonist's greatest free jazz sessions. He also worked with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and John Tchicai, and made his first albums as a leader with 1965's Sunny's Time Now (for Jihad) and 1966's Sunny Murray Quintet (for the seminal ESP), the latter of which helped him win Down Beat's New Star Award. In 1968, Murray traveled to France, where he played with Archie Shepp and recorded as a leader for Affinity and BYG Actuel; returning to the U.S. in 1971, Murray settled in Philadelphia and formed a group called the Untouchable Factor, which he led off and on through varying lineups. He then returned to New York City, but shortly thereafter moved back to Europe, where he remained for the rest of his life. Murray led a fine quintet in the late '70s and '80s, and surfaced on numerous dates during the '90s and well into the new millennium. He died in Paris in December 2017 at the age of 81. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi

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