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I confess: I approached David Murray’s performance with trepidation. The tenor titan, whose fiery improvisations, rhapsodic lyricism, and exhaustive discography of more than 200 albums have made him the most important saxophonist on the current jazz scene, was presenting Fo Deuk Revue, one of his most ambitious yet embarrassingly misguided recorded efforts.

Much of my disdain stemmed from that fact that I originally acquired the group’s CD last year not at Tower Records, Melody Records, HMV, or Borders Books, but at Virgin Records in Amsterdam. The CD lineup of Murray with fellow firespitters Craig Harris on trombone, Hugh Ragin on trumpet, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma playing harmolodic bass in front of a troupe of Senegalese musicians and rappers—not to mention the additional fire of Amiri Baraka’s polemic poetry and confrontational recitations—immediately jolted my curiosity. With both high expectations of hearing the Great Next and the childish glee of being one of the first to cop the CD before its American release, I cockily purchased it and waited feverishly to hip my friends to Murray’s latest masterpiece upon my return to D.C. But Murray’s One Nation Under a Groove theory had yielded an awkward jazz-funk record whose parts were greater than their sum.

Not so at Saturday night’s gig at the Black Cat. Murray realized his pan-African idealism with all the passion, muscle, and clarity that the album lacks. Whereas on record the music sounds canned, lethargic, and overly processed, the live performance lifted the bandstand: Surging cross-rhythms of sabar, talk drums, and djembe drums propelled the already forceful solos of Murray and Harris into a frenzied zone of unbridled abandon. Trap drummer J.T. Lewis’ sinewy backbeats and Melvin Gibbs’ elastic bass lines anchored the music with effective, simple grooves that prevented the proceedings from becoming a multiculti mess. In turn, the aggressive eruptions from Murray’s burly tenor, especially when he flew to the upper register to engage in his signature improvisational mayhem, kept the performance from becoming world music sap.

Amiri Baraka’s presence was both exciting and annoying. His fiery prose was especially fitting on “Evidence,” in which he forces Africa to share blame for the slave trade on Goree Island, but his stringent cadence began to wane considerably after the first stanzas. Instead of appearing like an urban sage, he came across like a pissed-off storefront preacher in search of a new revolution to support his vitriolic rantings. Similarly dubious was keyboardist Jimaine Nelson, who replaced Robert Irving III’s garish keyboard flourishes with his own equally garish keyboard flourishes. Nelson supplied added color and weight to Murray and Craig’s syncopated riffs, but in solos, the brittle textures sounded cheap.

The two obvious blemishes were, fortunately, counterbalanced by Murray’s own high-octane solos. Murray, often unjustly cited as an avant-gardist, is more a freedom-swing musician who can push himself to the fringes of dissonance without sacrificing swing or melodic logic. His solos tended to embody the full vocabulary of jazz, from tender lyricism that recalls the monstrous splendor of Ben Webster, to the heady improvisations of bebop, to the torrential energy that helped define the New Thing and New York’s Loft Jazz scenes of the later ’60s and early ’70s. Like Murray’s turns, Harris’ animated trombone solos linked the fluid improvisations of J.J. Johnson with the rollicking funk of Fred Wesley. His convoluted asides were jam-packed with jagged accents, smeared melodic figures, and loopy glissandos. Both Murray and Harris’ playing also contained an inherent blues-funk ethos that transcended any musical setting.

And transcendental funk is the best way to describe the engagement: Murray’s Fo Deuk Revue enthralled an enthusiastic audience of blacks, whites, bohemians, old hippies, and yuppies. Although the Senegalese hiphop group Positive Black Soul and some of the original Senegalese musicians from the album didn’t make it because of last-minute visa problems, their absence proved to be a blessing in disguise, because, after Irving’s icky keyboard synth-washes, Positive Black Soul is the worst component on the CD. Relying on a pickup band with Senegalese musicians from New York and a Cameroonian guitarist who reportedly had never played with Murray, the band pulled it off with astonishing assurance and sparkling creativity.

The opening, “Village Urbana,” seized the audience immediately, as Murray and Craig jabbed the pulsating Senegalese rhythms with James Brown-inspired riffs before soaring into the stratosphere with white-hot solos. The near-lethal strength of polyrhythms paired with the Herculean wails, shrieks, and shouts; and the terse melodies of Murray and Craig almost sounded as if the entire band had something to get off their chest. The night’s highlight, however, was the quiet untitled hymn sung by picked-up guitarist Richard Bona. His sweet falsetto uplifted the music just when the aggressive rhythms were becoming mundane. The beautiful hymn segued into a communal chorus of “Chant Africain,” which soothed even the inflammatory Baraka to a blue flame as he recited a poem calling for unity.

But the wistful mood was short-lived; the band commenced another incessant exposition with “Blue Muse,” featuring a sonically inventive solo from Gibbs, who manipulated his bass to sound more like Stevie Wonder’s vocoder innovations from the ’70s. Both Murray and Craig upped the ante with boastful solos that bordered on grandstanding. The concert, however, took an unnecessary nose dive when Harris grabbed the mike to deliver some of the most unconvincing dance-hall toasting since Celine Dion’s recent appearance on the Essence Awards. Drawn out and just plain insipid, Harris’ chanting of “David Murray likes his women wide so he can slide like a trombone”—while a voluminous member of the audience swayed to the pedestrian groove—lessened the performance’s inspirational focus. The closing “One World Family,” featuring Nelson’s gospelized vocals, threatened to be just as mind-numbing. Fortunately, Murray’s passion rescued the song from its overwrought sentimentality. Even so, its sweetness began to wane with each refrain.

Murray’s Fo Deuk Revue still has many kinks to work through before becoming a unit as thoroughly persuasive as the late Don Pullen’s African-Brazilian Connection. With a more streamlined focus and better material, Fo Deuk Revue may prove to be a most viable form of musical expression. I hope Murray will use this performance, and not the CD, as the launching pad for future explorations. CP