Murray McNabb: farewell from an unsung great NZ musician

by Graham Reid / 13 June, 2013
“I just went along for the ride,” said keyboard player and composer McNabb – and what a ride it was.
Dr Tree featuring Frank Gibson Jr, Martin Winch, Andy Atwell and Murray McNabb. Photo/Supplied by the band for TimeOut.

The plan would have been timely: a concert acknowledging the half-century Murray McNabb knew and played alongside drummer Frank Gibson. “Then they gave me a year, a year ago,” said the keyboard player and composer about his cancer diagnosis. “So I’m on the way out. But we’re all on the way out in one way or another. It’s just happening at a different time for me.”

That time came on Sunday, a little over a fortnight after this final interview in McNabb’s Auckland home.

Philosophical and until recently still recording (two tracks with Gibson for a duets album under the drummer’s name, plus the Anti-Borneo Magic double album with the astral-rock group Salon Kingsadore), McNabb was among this country’s best, most-heard but least-known musicians.

With songwriter Murray Grindlay, he played on, wrote or arranged hundreds of commercials imprinted into our collective consciousness: Mainland cheese, that famous Crunchie ad, McDonald’s, John Grenell’s Welcome to My World

There was also Sailing Away, the Red Nose Day song and soundtracks for the television series Greenstone, Once Were Warriors and others. Everyone’s heard one song, if not a dozen, bearing the fingerprint of the 66-year-old.

“I had absolutely no compunction about selling myself to the advertising world,” said McNabb, laughing. “I do them so I can make jazz records. I’ve enjoyed making commercials. The only thing better is playing live music in an improvised situation.”

The Aucklander was almost entirely self-taught on piano and told of a music teacher giving up because he’d just memorise the music. Written notes, said this true improviser, “are only a memory guide anyway”.

McNabb and Gibson met at Mt Albert Grammar, and their love of jazz became a journey of mutual discovery. In the late 1960s, he and Gibson scored a six-night-a-week residency at Troika restaurant and McNabb quit his day job as a trainee accountant. The appeal of jazz? “Freeeeedom.”

Murray McNabb, circa 1982. Photo/Supplied

Their careers took them through bars, clubs, restaurant residencies and popular groups such as Dr Tree and Space Case in the 1970s and beyond. Along the way, McNabb played in the covers band Rainbow (“just chasing the hit parade, keeping up with the top 10”) and spent years in a country-rock outfit (“that was our starting point, it got a bit warped after that”), but it was always jazz first.

During the band’s four years, Dr Tree caught the spirit of the jazz-rock era, scoring two wins at the New Zealand Music Awards, and numerous visiting international musicians sat in. Gibson left for London in 1977, and some of those same musicians appeared on Space Case albums when he returned.

In 1984, Space Case – three albums in five years – were the first group to represent New Zealand at the Singapore Jazz Festival. “A bunch of hedonists, they called us,” said McNabb. “They don’t drink and we had [bassist] Andy Brown.”

McNabb’s creative career was bedevilled by the usual vagaries of the record industry and the fluctuating interest in jazz – “it’s absolutely got to do with how many times you see the word ‘jazz’ in the newspaper, it’s perception” – but he kept going.

He released albums under his own name – including the delightful Waiting for You in 1987 (with Gibson and Brown) – and with his groups Modern Times and Band R; recorded in New York with acclaimed bassist Ron McClure and drummer Adam Nussbaum; with Gibson was a fixture at Auckland’s popular London Bar and other jazz venues; and more recently was part of the innovative Salon Kingsadore.

“But I’m of the peculiar belief you don’t do anything, it all just happens to you. I never planned any of this – I just went along for the ride.”

Greenstone allowed McNabb to compose for an orchestra and traditional Maori instruments and doing television pop extravaganzas let him write for choirs. “I’ve always been a bloodsucker for any music from anywhere that would expand me.”

Even as a kid scraping inside the family piano, he experimented with sounds (“I like a bit of noise”), and said, “I like to write stuff you don’t have to rehearse, you just start. I want to catch the wave. What do you need to know? ‘It’s in G.’”

Despite morphine twice daily, McNabb was still playing occasional short sets with Salon Kingsadore and Gibson in the weeks before he died. “I’ll be all right as long as I keep gigging,” he said, laughing. “And there’s nothing better than the first tune and you don’t know what’s going to happen. That moment for me is just joy … and here we go, off into the infinite.”

For an extended version of Graham Reid's interview with Murray McNabb, click here.
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