The winner of several prestigious national awards, 17-year-old bass phenomenon John Murray has a seemingly boundless ability to enrich himself by devouring music — and food.
How much food?
Earlier this year, during a single 90-minute ensemble class at San Diego’s Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, Murray consumed 11 of the 12 croissants he had brought with him.
“I was blown away!” said Young Lions founder and teacher Gilbert Castellanos. “I asked John: ‘Where do you put it all?’ He’s as skinny as a rail.”
“It’s amazing he can eat so much and how fast his metabolism is,” agreed Murray’s 19-year-old sister, Carmen, a drummer and jazz major at New York University. “John needs a lot of calories to keep him going — and it’s the same with music.”
The slender bassist is also an avid surfer and skateboarder. He laughed knowingly when asked about his prodigious appetite.
“Yeah, I do like to eat,” said Murray, who is 5-foot-8 and weighs 125 pounds. “I don’t know where it all goes.”
What about his consumption of music?
“Anything that’s in front of me I’ll listen to, and I listen to a lot of music,” he replied. “That’s the main way I practice. Let me rephrase that: If I’m not practicing, I’m listening to music. I listen over and over again to the point where I can sing the whole tune. Once I can sing it, then I’ll try to learn it on my bass.
“Lately, I have been working on transcribing a lot of Ray Brown’s (bass) playing with the Oscar Peterson Trio. And I really like transcribing sax solos. Because if I transcribe bass solos, I’ll just sound like a bass player. I want to sound like a horn player when I solo and a bass player when I comp (accompany).”
Murray’s distinctive sound, skill and imagination on his instrument are readily apparent each time he takes the stage.
New Soil Ensemble, the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory quintet in which he performs, was selected in June as the top high school small jazz combo in the nation by Downbeat magazine. It was the second consecutive year New Soil has won that honor.
‘Essentially Ellington’ award winner
In 2018, Murray won Outstanding Soloist honors at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Festival. In 2019, he became the first bassist in the history of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s then-24-year-old Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival to win its Ella Fitzgerald Outstanding Soloist Award.
Murray performed at Jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts Ellington Jazz Ensemble. He authoritatively soloed on two Ellington classics, “Happy Go Lucky Local” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” His Ella Fitzgerald Outstanding Soloist Award victory was precedent-setting.
In presenting the award, Pulitzer Prize-wining Jazz at Lincoln Center honcho Wynton Marsalis singled Murray out for his sophistication, originality, feeling, thematic development, impact and “overarching concept of form.”
“The person who wins the (2018) award plays an instrument that has never won it. This young man tonight is certainly playing — you all already recognized it — that’s how deep it was. I’m talking about Mr. John Murray!”
Such national acclaim is a source of pride for top San Diego trumpeter and jazz educator Castellanos, one of Murray’s key mentors. The bassist is the youngest musician to ever become a fulltime member of any of Castellanos’ many bands. The trumpeter plans to have Murray make his recording debut later this summer on Castellanos’ next album.
Murray will perform with the Castellanos quartet at The Westgate Hotel on Friday and each Wednesday this month at Panama 66. Murray is also the house bassist each Tuesday at the all-ages jazz jam sessions led by sax dynamo Charlie Arbelaez at Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center in North Park.
In addition, Murray will perform a duo piece with jazz drum star Jeff Hamilton Aug. 1 at Bread & Salt, as part of the annual Young Lions Jazz Conservatory fundraising concert. The lineup also features Castellanos, Charles McPherson, bassist Marshall Hawkins and such luminaries as flutist Holly Hofmann, pianist Mike Wofford and Diana Krall band guitarist Anthony Wilson.
“A friend sent me a video of John when he was 8 or 9 and was standing on a crate, playing a quarter-sized bass. I thought: ‘Wow! This kid is talented,’ ” said Castellanos, who began teaching Murray when he was 11.
“John gets better every week. He is so mature for his age and you can hear the confidence in his playing. If you heard him playing in the dark, you’re not going to think he’s 17; you’re going to think he’s 65. John is the complete musical package.”
The taste, dexterity, sophistication and clarity with which Murray performs are palpable. He was only 7 when he took up the bass a decade ago, after several years of piano lessons. He studied classical bass with Sayuri Yamamoto of the San Diego Symphony, then took jazz lessons with former Miles Davis band member Hawkins and contrabass pioneer Bertram Turetzky.
“Bert broke my playing down to the fundamentals, then brought it back up and taught me a lot about playing tastefully,” Murray said. “I was really excited to study with him because I’m a big fan of Mark Dresser, Nathan East and the other great bassists he has mentored.”
It was Dresser and Turetzky’s 2013 concert at the San Diego Museum of Art, adjacent to Panama 66, that Murray cites as his key musical epiphany.
“I fell in love with the bass that night,” he said. ""The diverse ways it was played at that concert really struck me. I was so awed by the different sounds Bert and Mark could get out of the instrument. I thought: ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I want to play’.”
By 13, Murray was so accomplished that UC San Diego Jazz Camp founder Daniel Atkinson waived the camp’s minimum age requirement.
“John already had an extraordinary ability when he was very young,” said Atkinson, the founder and programming coordinator of La Jolla Athenaeum’s 32-year-old jazz concert series.
“In 2017, his first year, we put John in (sax legend) Charles McPherson’s ensemble, one of our most challenging and advanced ensembles. In 2018, we put him in Mark Dresser’s ensemble — an extremely complex musical environment that was not in John’s comfort zone — and he jumped right in.
“For someone of his age and experience to go in the deep end and thrive like that was, in the 17 years the jazz camp existed, extraordinary.”
Murray’s age-defying musical prowess was amply displayed on July 30 during the second set of his weekly Wednesday gig with Castellanos’ quartet at Panama 66 in Balboa Park. The repertoire is completely different each set and Castellanos likes to spontaneously call out songs to perform that his accomplished quartet hasn’t played together before.
Written arrangements are used for some selections, but not for others. Spontaneity and real-time sonic invention are key. This approach ensures that Murray and the other musicians think fast and listen as intently as they play.
Castellanos, 48, pianist Joshua White, 35, and drummer Tyler Kreutel, 29, are all older and far more experienced than Murray. But the brown-haired bassist easily holds his own, both as an empathetic ensemble player and an arresting and increasingly resourceful soloist.
“My entire role is to uplift the other musicians and outline the harmony of the song,” said Murray, who will be a senior this fall at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
“Soloing is definitely secondary to me. That’s not to say I don’t solo or practice soloing, because I do. But I focus primarily on the way I play behind other people.”
At Panama 66, Murray provided a propulsive foundation and lithe solos as he romped through Kenny Dorham’s bluesy “Back Road” and Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me.” He played with admirable sensitivity on a rhapsodic version of the 1941 ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” It was the only selection in the set in which he was not featured as a soloist.
“I always view each performance as an opportunity to improve,” Murray said. “Every time I play, I pay attention to what went wrong and where I messed up. Then, I go home to work on correcting what I did and improving.”
At the June 30 performance, the loudest applause of the night came for Murray’s bravura solo during a medley of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and the intricately constructed Thelonious Monk classics “Criss Cross” and “I Mean You.”
They were performed as a piano trio showcase led by White, who in 2011 won second-place honors at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. To up the ante, White did not tell Murray or Kreutel how the medley was going to start or what songs he would segue into.
“Usually, Joshua starts improvising in a key and then figures out a song to play in that key,” Murray said.
“I just make it up on the spot,” White affirmed.
“Joshua always stays very true to the music. I watch his left hand to figure out what he wants me to play,” Murray added. “I always feel very free playing music with Joshua.”
During his solo on the Ellington/Monk medley, Murray’s fleet bass lines and deft chordal work were made more impactful by well-timed pauses that allowed the notes to resonate fully. His melodic and harmonic invention was balanced by a keen sense of dynamic tension and resolution.
“A good solo comes when you have a lot of consistent ideas and melodies that sound good,” said Murray, who cites Castellanos, White, Kreutel, pianist Mikan Zlatkovich and the other musicians he works with for consistently upping his game.
The bassist credits his jazz-loving mother and father, Leslie and Craig, for the unwavering support they have provided to him and his sister, Carmen. The two siblings formed a band, the M3 Jazz Trio, when he was barely 10 and played together here until she enrolled at New York University last year.
“John is my absolute favorite bass player,” Carmen said. “We differ in one major way: He has to play music. It’s the only thing that will satisfy him and make him happy. He will become a (full-time) working musician. I think that, one day, everyone will want to work with him.”
Murray hopes to follow his sister to New York after he graduates next year from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
“I’m not the most avid composer, but making an album has been on my mind for some time,” said the bassist, who is also contemplating launching his own website. For now, he uses social media to promote his San Diego gigs.
“I’d like to get better as a musician and play with as many people as possible. My long-term goal is to get into a music school, preferably in Manhattan, so I can continue to study music there and see where it takes me.”
Murray chuckled when asked if he minded Castellanos introducing him each week at Panama 66 by noting his age, specifically: “That’s John Murray on bass — 17-year-old John Murray!”
“I don’t mind it at all, because I am 17,” he said. “And Gilbert’s been doing that since I was 12 and each year since then.”
“The Shape of Jazz to Come” fundraising concert for Young Lions Jazz Academy
Featuring: Jeff Hamilton, Charles McPherson, Anthony Wilson, Holly Hofmann, Marshall Hawkins, Gilbert Castellanos, John Murray and more
When: Noon to 4 p.m. Aug. 1
Where: Bread & Salt, 1955 Julian Ave., San Diego
Tickets: $40 and $45