Jazz, Meet Merle Haggard…
When you think of the brilliant music of Merle Haggard, you don’t immediately associate it with anything in the jazz arena but saxophonist Bryan Murray and his band The Haggards have beautifully merged a progressive jazz style with the heartfelt, working class songs of the American music icon. It is an odd pairing, to say the least, but Murray and company take Merle’s music and at times, turn it upside down creating a new musical experience that is as rich as it is simple, soulful and downright fun.
After hearing Still Alive and Kickin’ Down The Walls from the Haggards, I was curious to learn more about their fearless leader Bryan Murray and how the concept to interpret Merle’s music in this new context came about and this is what he had to say. – JV
What was your first introduction to jazz?
The first time I heard jazz was when my parents took me to see one of the Air Force jazz bands. I was probably in grade school and I remember being enamored with the lead tenor saxophonist. They played all the old Glenn Miller stuff, which my parents loved, and I couldn’t get over how cool that tenor sax was. After I had played the sax for a few years and took private lessons, my neighbor mentioned that his rock guitar teacher Chuck Biel, a professor at WV State College, taught jazz. I started studying jazz improvisation and theory with him in the 8th grade. He was a brilliant teacher and loaded me up with recordings by Sonny Rollins, Bird, Coltrane, Chick Corea, Weather Report, Michael Brecker, and anything he thought I would or should dig. My mom had a friend at work that told her to buy me Random Abstract by Branford Marsalis, and soon after that my dad took me to see Branford give a clinic. Branford became one of my favorite players and I bought all his records. His quartet came through West Virginia a few times, which was great to see live.
What was the first jazz album you purchased?
Probably the first jazz album I bought was Branford’s Trio Jeepy on cassette tape. Before that, I would go to the public library in Charleston, WV and check out as many records as I could and go home and record them to tape. I remember they had a ton of Sonny Rollins and Coltrane.
In terms of your sax playing (& study), who are some of your main influences?
When I was younger, it was definitely Branford and also Michael Brecker. Chuck Biel (my teacher) was really into Weather Report, Jaco, Brecker, and more fusion-type stuff, so I listened a lot to that too. When I got to college, my roommate played me some Tom Harrell records. I got into Tom and that’s the first time I heard Joe Lovano. After that, Joe was my favorite player for a long time. I went to see him play whenever I could. When I was in grad school in Chicago, he came and played a week at the Jazz Showcase. I went a bunch of nights and every night asked him for a lesson. By the end of the week, I think I bugged him enough that he had to say yes! That was a great lesson and Joe was a super nice guy. I bought every album I could find with Lovano on it.
When I moved to New York, I was playing a gig every Thursday in the village with my good friend Aaron Irwin. After our gig, Diego Voglino’s band played, and he had Chris Cheek with him on almost every gig. Aaron and I became obsessed with Chris Cheek’s playing. Chris is also an extremely humble and nice person, and we both started taking lessons with him. His sense of melody is so special. They would play all standards, and Cheek would just weave through them with beautiful melodies and without the ego-driven, show-off type of tenor playing. It was so refreshing! I became a Chris Cheek nut.
I was also fortunate to get to study with Rich Perry, another favorite player of mine. His sense of harmony is so deep and unique that I wanted to know what that was all about. Also he has the best live sound of any saxophonist I’ve ever heard. It’s amazing how much sound he gets out of the horn. He’s another super humble person and was really fun to study with. I’ve had the chance to hire him on a couple duo tenor gigs and it’s so much fun. He is a legendary player.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really been into Dewey Redman. When I first heard Dewey back in undergrad, I thought he couldn’t play. I didn’t like it at all. But now he’s one of my favorite players. My tastes have definitely changed. I dig his rawness and his unique approach. The way he plays on those Keith Jarrett records, as well as those of Ornette, is so great. Those albums are some of my favorites.
What was your first introduction to the music of Merle Haggard?
Jon Lundbom, whom I’ve known since I was at DePaul in Chicago and now play with in the Haggards and Big Five Chord, gave me a compilation CD of Merle Haggard and the Strangers. I had never heard this stuff before and when I listened to it I was amazed. I fell in love with the songs and Merle’s voice and everything about it.
How did the concept of covering (mostly) Merle Haggard songs in a progressive context come about?
We had a Big Five Chord gig coming up at the Knitting Factory, and I mentioned to Lundbom that we should play all Merle Haggard tunes and he was into it! So we tried it and it just worked. It was so much fun. So I started booking gigs with the same personnel as Big Five Chord, but called the band Bryan and the Haggards.
What is your process in selecting the repertoire in the Haggards?
I look for songs that I not only like, but that have some uniqueness to them. This might be the form, the feel, or maybe songs with more complex chord changes. But I like those simpler tunes, too. I like them all but I do try to find the ones that translate to instrumental playing the best. Merle’s music is so much about the lyrics that, to play it instrumentally, we really have to do something with it.
How would you describe the band’s first, and critically acclaimed, recording Pretend It’s The End of the World?
At that time, I think we were still trying to make a jazz record, or at least be kind of a crossover between jazz and country. I like the album a lot, and to me it sounds a little more raw. It has more of a live album feel to me because we recorded in one room with no headphones and most were first takes. The new record, we did maybe three takes at most and were in separate rooms.
What was your approach on the recently released second album, Still Alive and Kickin’ Down The Walls?
I keep saying to friends that I wish I played a different instrument so I could be in a real country band. But the problem is I play tenor sax, so I just made my band more like a country band. On the new CD, the rhythm section sounds like they could be backing up a regular country band. I dig that tension between the soloists playing all this crazy stuff while the rhythm section keeps playing normal. I think it gives us a unique sound for sure. But when we play live, we tend to stretch a lot. I don’t really tell the guys in the band to do this or play it that way, they just play the way they want. It’s important to pick the right personnel.
Has Merle heard of you guys?
Not that I’m aware of. I hope that if he does, that he hears our sincere respect for the music.
Bryan and the Haggards perform “Miss the Mississippi and You”