On the verge of its silver
anniversary, the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) finally pays long-overdue respects to a
founding member: the visionary multi-reed player Julius Hemphill. Although none of his
compositions are included, his former bandmates have assembled an impassioned tribute that
clearly demonstrates how indebted they remain to Hemphills musical concepts.
Hemphill, who was steeped in Texas R&B from early childhood, became
fascinated by the fertile avant garde improvising scene in St. Louis when he relocated
there after a stint in the army. He joined forces with Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett and
David Murray in 1976 and quickly established himself as the quartets most prolific
writer and arranger. His tenure with the WSQ is widely regarded as the bands most
creative period. Sadly, pioneering jazz artists rarely attain financial security...
monetary strains, coupled with all-too-familiar tales of ego and lifestyle clashes, plus
increasingly significant health problems, found Hemphill out of a job in 1989. Although he
rallied back with a new saxophone sextet and the staging of several ambitious multi-media
works, Hemphill never rejoined the WSQ; he succumbed to diabetes complications in April
For much of the past decade without Hemphill, the WSQ has done its best
to develop new artistic strategies, often arranging the music of others (most
significantly Duke Ellington and Miles Davis) or augmenting the group with drummers,
percussionists and vocalists. Perhaps what makes Requiem so striking is the fact
that it marks a return to the basic quartet setting, with an emphasis on original
The one exception is Jack DeJohnettes rhythmically tantilizing
"Ebony." Originally scored for two horns (one of which belonged to John Purcell,
WSQ member since 1996, who arranged the present version), this "Ebony" proves a
strong opener, complete with telepathic horn interactions and punchy solos.
For listeners unaccustomed to the saxophone quartet realm, its
probably best to start with the closing track, a self-explanatory piece called
"Blues," credited to the whole group. From the first notes of Bluietts
baritone "bassline," to the New Orleans-style polyphony that dominates the tune,
right through to the brilliant unison coda, over which Murrays bass clarinet bleats
a couple succinct exclamations, "Blues" provides four minutes of pure sonic joy.
Drums, who needs em?
Elsewhere, the WSQ treads into deeper waters. There is the choirlike
feel of "All Praise" on the one hand, which finds composer Purcell juxtaposing
long unison lines against his own soaring soprano solo. Or, on the other, the title
pieces exuberant recollection of Hemphill, a stylish gospel-tinged theme which keeps
flirting with cacophony, but always slips back into step at the last possible moment.
For more information about this and other recent World Saxophone
Quartet releases, check out the Justin Time website: www.justin-time.com. This small
Canadian label is best-known for introducing Diana Krall to the world, but the company
also issues many other fascinating albums, by both Canadian and U.S. jazz artists.
Copyright©WWUH: May/June Program Guide, 2000