Jazz took a conservative turn in the early '80s: think Wynton Marsalis, whose 1982 debut swore allegiance to 1965 Miles Davis. But back then even progressives were looking to the past, albeit a broader one. Some players — the term neo-classicists was bandied about — were hearing the whole panorama of jazz as source material for an organic style grown from old and new elements, the rowdy ones included.
David Murray was neo-classicism's poster kid. The tenor saxophonist had his own voice, early, but any well-versed jazz fan could hear generous helpings of mighty forebears: Ben Webster's big and bearish tone, rhythmic swagger, and tender stage-whispered ballads; Albert Ayler's Theremin-like upper-register keening; a gospel saxophonist's ecstatic falsetto (Murray can play entire solos up there); Eric Dolphy's careening from the bottom of the horn to the top (and back) in big staccato leaps. Like all of the above, Murray had — still has — a great sense of drama. He's also the first bass clarinetist of consequence to jazz since Dolphy died in 1964, with his own sweetly woody, almost bubbly sound on ballads, as he loudly popping notes from the mouthpiece like a novelty “gaspipe” clarinetist of the '20s.
Murray's always been a heavy swinger, never the kind of fool to cede swing and a populist blues feel to Wynton and company. Of his straightahead-ish quartet dates, 1986's I Want to Talk About You is a time-capsule ready snapshot of superior nightclub jazz, via Charlie's Tap in Boston. Murray's ultra-New York rhythm section is pianist John Hicks, bassist Ray Drummond and 23-year old drummer Ralph Peterson; the program's a bellyful of beauteous ballads, night-train riffing and open-road blues. (In the populist vein, you should also hear the foot-happy shuffle “David — Mingus,” by a one-shot quartet that should've made a whole album: Murray, guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer “Smitty” Smith.)