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World Saxophone Quartet – Requiem for Julius
Justin Time Records

By Chuck Obuchowski

    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 Hemphill’s 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 quartet’s most prolific writer and arranger. His tenure with the WSQ is widely regarded as the band’s 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 1995.
    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 compositions.
    The one exception is Jack DeJohnette’s 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, it’s probably best to start with the closing track, a self-explanatory piece called "Blues," credited to the whole group. From the first notes of Bluiett’s baritone "bassline," to the New Orleans-style polyphony that dominates the tune, right through to the brilliant unison coda, over which Murray’s 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 piece’s 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

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