Using Paris as a base makes it easy for Murray to make short hops to European cities, where he often leads one of his numerous ensembles -- quartet, octet, big band -- or joins up with the World Saxophone Quartet, of which he's a founding member. He also sees his Paris residency as a way to expand his outlook.
"I'm trying to link up with some other African people on the planet and see what they're thinking about," says Murray, who has lived in an ethnically mixed area of Paris for six years.
It was there that Murray met Guadeloupean natives Guy Konket and Klod Kiavue. In 1977, vocalist Konket and drummer/vocalist Kiavue accompanied Murray to Guadeloupe for several gwo-ka ceremonies, all-night rituals of drumming, singing and dancing that take place in open fields. The experience resulted in the album Creole, which features Murray and several of his fellow jazz musicians collaborating with a gwo-ka ensemble. This year, the saxophonist released a follow-up to that project, Yonn-De.
Central to the gwo-ka tradition is the ka drum, an instrument originally made from metal potted meat containers that were carried on slave ships. After these items were emptied and discarded, slaves put skins on them to create drums. Kiavue heads the choir of drums that rhythmically speaks of the musical ties between African descendants from around the world.
"The ka drum that Klod plays is actually the lead instrument, if you can imagine a drum being the lead in an ensemble," explains Murray. "It almost plays like a saxophone."
On tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Murray becomes another expressive voice that weaves and accents the call-and-response of the vocals and drums. His creative explorations are contemporary, but a common language prevails in this deep-rooted tradition.
"I just tried to rely on what I know," Murray says of his modern blowing with the gwo-ka musicians. "It's not a high-and-mighty kind of concept. It's more of a concept where you take off your shirt and sweat and keep playing. Growing up in the Church of God and Christ, spirit is very prevalent in what I do. It's a real African kind of a concept. Us African people have been put in different places, but we're still African. So we try to continue what we think we know through our genes."
The lyrics, which often tell of daily life and hardships as on the vigorous "Twa Jou San Manje" ("Three Days Without Food"), are sung in Creole patois -- French with an African dialect. Lead vocalist Konket, who Murray calls the high priest of gwo-ka, is a dynamic presence in the music that often brings to mind images of the blues of rural America or the garifuna singers and drummers of Belize.
"He's kind of a loose cat -- sort of like the Fela (the late legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti) of Guadeloupe," says Murray. "Maybe he never had that kind of band behind him (like Fela), but the people in Guadeloupe all recognize him as one of the masters." Continuing the comparisons to other renowned musicians, Murray adds, "He's like a Charlie Parker figure here in Paris; he's kind of like a walkin' blues man -- maybe like a Son House character."
Murray's work with the Guadeloupean musicians continues his exploration of common roots. In 1995, he released Fodeuk, which teamed him and several other jazz musicians with Senegalese artists. Recently Murray headed to Cuba to record his next big band album, flanked by an array of Cuban musicians.
"It's about how we can link ourselves to the universe and become one with these rhythms," says Murray of his aim. "It's a sharing of cultures that have continued to hold onto some kind of primitive way of expressing themselves musically."
Murray's musical expression knows no boundaries. In 1999 Murray put his stamp on R&B and gospel classics on the album Speaking in Tongues, and in 2000 he focused on the works of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane on Octet Plays Trane. Last year, the saxophonist led his power quartet on the melodically inclined Like a Kiss That Never Ends.
All of this musical travel is nothing new to Murray, who at age 47 has released a whopping 249 albums. "People sit and laugh at that sometimes," says Murray of his output. "But I laugh that they laugh. To me it's just my life."