There are probably arguments that could be made against this claim, but Sunny Murray is free jazz’s first truly free drummer. Instead of simply keeping time, Murray’s playing is purely expressionistic, pouring his entire being into a cacophony of textural percussion. Considering his place in the free jazz pantheon, it is unsurprising that he cut his teeth in the Cecil Taylor Unit and then in the Albert Ayler Trio and Quartet, three of the most important groups in free jazz’s development. While his playing on albums by these groups, and especially on the Albert Ayler Trio’s fiery Ghosts, is rightfully lauded by fans and critics, his work as a bandleader is too often overlooked. He recorded two great ESP-Disks—1965’s Sunny’s Time Now and 1966’s Sunny Murray—while still a member of Ayler’s band—along with the transitional Big Chief for EMI/Pathe in 1968 between his stint with Ayler and Archie Shepp’s invitation to join him at the Panafrican Festival at the start of the next summer. While Murray’s first three albums as leader are very good, Murray’s voice is still very much tied to his work with Ayler. Murray’s time with Shepp and his experiences recording for BYG Actuel freed him of these stylistic constraints and allowed him to find his own voice as a writer.
Hommage to Africa is the first of three albums Murray recorded for Actuel, and it is the first of that label’s records to truly embody the communal and exploratory spirit of that Paris summer in 1969. Side one, which consists of the piece “Suns of Africa” in two parts, features a whopping thirteen musicians. Shepp’s entire sextet makes up the backbone of the ensemble, along with Earl Freeman on tympani and bells, Kenneth Terroade on flute and tenor saxophone, Arthur Jones on gong, tambourine, and bells, and Art Ensemble of Chicago collaborator Jeanne Lee on vocals and bells. Most importantly, three of the four members of the Art Ensemble play on this record (Joseph Jarman is the only absent member), and this marks the first collaboration between the New York and Chicago free jazz camps. With a decade’s worth of recording and publicity, as well as luminaries like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Taylor, and Ayler to follow, many of the New York players were starting to find themselves in a bit of a rut by the end of the sixties. Great records and performances were still happening, but sonic and compositional advancements weren’t terribly forthcoming. Enter the AACM in Chicago, whose members were quietly upending free jazz dogma with their use of little instruments and focus on negative space and sparse compositions. The arrival of the Chicago musicians (along with several equally iconoclastic players from St. Louis) in Paris and then in New York a few years later revitalized free jazz as a whole and sparked the underappreciated loft jazz scene on the 1970s. As far as recorded documents go, that all started here on “Suns of Africa.”
A chorus of bells and Murray’s cymbals open the track and provide most of the texture for the first half of the piece. They are soon joined by Kenneth Terroade and Roscoe Mitchell on flutes. These two seem to switch back and forth between snaking around each other’s sounds and actively sparring. This first movement in Part 1 is allowed six or seven minutes to slowly and loosely develop, and it would have made for a memorable piece on its own. Murray’s role in this movement is strictly complimentary, hanging back and allowing himself to blend in with the sea of percussion while the two flautists take the lead. As bandleader, Murray is content to hang around the background and provide anchoring textures, that is until Dave Burrell arrives like a set of asteroids, blasting the surface of the song with two quick and startling runs forcing Murray to take a more active role in the piece. After this initial appearance, Burrell joins in with the other seven musicians improvising with a much lighter touch than he would later employ on his Actuel masterpiece Echo. With Burrell in tow, the band builds ecstatically to herald the arrival of Jeanne Lee on the microphone. Her vocal part consists of a brief, repetitive, wordless melody that serves as the song’s centerpiece. Burrell quickly locks into his own counterpoint melody after a short stretch focused on Lee’s interactions with Malachi Favors’ balafon and Alan Silva’s bass.
And then the horns come in. Roscoe Mitchell’s first notes on the alto sax are the most gorgeous fifteen seconds of this song, and five more quickly join him in Lee’s melody—filling in for Lee while she takes a break to focus on her bells. Mitchell, Shepp, Terroade, Clifford Thornton, Grachan Moncur III, and Lester Bowie take turns, in no particular order, breaking away from the melody to solo, and at times five seemingly unrelated solos nearly drown out the melody held by a lone horn. Lee’s vocals return briefly, and she moves in and out as needed. Burrell continues to anchor the piece with his piano melody, and the horns build and build until they reach a peak, and then all of the sounds bleed away. Lee returns unaccompanied for the brief Part 2, and when she’s rejoined by the horns, it’s for a melancholy new melody devoid of solos. Bells and Burrell’s piano make occasional appearances like specters haunting the background of the piece. After all of the joy the band finds in Africa for most of “Suns of Africa,” they can’t fully escape the horrors in the continent’s history and their own detachment from the culture as a result of slavery. After gleefully basking in the continent for fifteen minutes, it is fitting that they would end things resigned to their psychological, physical, and cultural distance from it.
“Suns of Africa” is one of the high watermarks of the BYG Actuel catalog, and it is one of the great examples of free jazz at its least abrasive. Unfortunately, it sets the bar prohibitively high for side two. “R.I.P.,” the first of two songs on the latter side, doesn’t quite match up to these high standards, but it works as both a continuation of the melancholy of “Suns of Africa Part 2” and a nice warping of Albert Ayler’s frighteningly unhinged marching songs. The bells from side one are absent here, as are most of the Art Ensemble members. Instead, we’re left with the Archie Shepp Sextet with Mitchell and Terroade replacing Shepp on sax. Like “Suns of Africa,” “R.I.P.” is built around a recurring melody during which the horns break away for frequent solos seemingly without a predetermined order. The melody here is rather ugly, and the ten and a half minutes the listener has to spend with it is a bit too long. Still, the soloing, and especially the interplay between Mitchell and Terroade, is just as impressive as on “Suns of Africa,” and Burrell’s playing, which points toward his own future work as leader, is amazing. Unfortunately, Alan Silva’s bass is almost completely submerged under the horns. For a band that was so good on the previous side at providing space for every musician, even when there were thirteen of them, Silva’s inaudibility is the major disappointment of this song. Still, while Silva doesn’t get to play much of a role, Murray steps up on this song and takes a much more assertive role throughout. The song also ends with Murray’s only solo on the record. It’s not Murray’s best solo of his recording career, but it is a great example of how he was able to eschew rhythm in favor of pure sonic expressionism. He’s also able to play extremely quickly without raising his volume at all. Not many drum solos are able to feel understated, but Murray pulls that off here. It’s a credit to Murray that he seemingly felt no need to dominate the proceedings when the pieces he wrote called for him to provide texture rather than outplay everyone else.
The drum solo leads right into “Unity,” a song that is much more in line with the understated beauty of “Suns of Africa” while maintaining the gloomy feel that has dominated the record since Part 2 of that piece. As on the other songs, the standout performance here is not by Murray. Instead, Clifford Thornton’s cornet balances beauty and sorrow better than any other performer on this song. Even when the song’s melody disappears entirely, the relationships fostered by most of the players’ time in Shepp’s band allows them to maintain an almost telepathic ability to play off of one another. Considering the Pan-African focus of much the Actuel musicians’ music, it is initially strange that such an unhappy song would be titled “Unity,” but considering the anticolonial and intertribal strife that dominated and still dominates much of Africa, true unity is an improbable goal at best. In spite of his ideals, Murray seems aware that this ideal is unattainable, but he closes the book on these negative thoughts, and on the record, with a lone cymbal crash at the end. The ideal of a Pan-African community, and a truly communal Black artistic environment, would live on in these musicians even after this piece. The latter at least was attainable for those brief few months at the BYG studios in the second half of 1969, where musicians who had never played together before could come together in the name of a common musical ideology.
Note: Unfortunately, “R.I.P.” seems to be the only song from Hommage to Africa on YouTube, so I don’t have the option to embed one of the better pieces.
Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 04: Archie Shepp – Yasmina, a Black Woman
Actuel 05: Gong – Magick Brother
Actuel 06: Claude Delcloo & Arthur Jones – Africanasia
Actuel 07: Michel Puig – Stigmates
Actuel 08: Burton Greene - Aquariana
 Dave Burrell and Alan Silva handle abrasiveness with aplomb on their own Actuel records.
 It’s a shame that Terroade only recorded one album as leader during his entire career. While BYG may not have been very consistent at paying musicians, they must be credited for giving people who would never before or since have an opportunity to lead, Terroade included, the studio time and supportive atmosphere to do so.