Friday, March 04, 2011

Julius Hemphill

In the fullness of time, it seems like the big mistake that the collective jazz fans and crits of the world made, post-1970s, was waiting for the Next Big Improvisational Approach a la Armstrong-Parker-Miles-Trane to emerge, when in fact the great strides that were made during that era were in the fields of composition and the use of the ensemble by musos like Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Fort Worth expat Julius Hemphill.

Born in 1938, Hemphill landed in St. Louis in 1968 after Army service and there co-founded the Black Artists Group with like-minded spirits including Oliver Lake, Hamiett Bluiett, and Baikida Carroll. The BAG migrated en masse to NYC in the mid-70s, much like Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (which included Braxton and Mitchell), and Hemphill formed his most renowned group, the World Saxophone Quartet, there in 1976 with Lake, Bluiett, and Californian David Murray.

He created the Mbari label to release his own recordings, including the influential Dogon A.D. (later reissued on Arista Freedom) and the overdubbed solo Blue Boye (later reissued on disciple Tim Berne's Screwgun label). Ejected from the WSQ in 1990, he had the last laugh, forming an all-saxophone sextet (having already recorded a big band album for Elektra Musician in 1988). Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer beat him down; he lost a leg and was unable to perform near the end of his life, although he kept composing till he checked out on April 2, 1995.

His greatest musical gift was for blending the sounds of woodwinds. His horn voicings have the cry of the blues and the elegance of Ellington's or Mingus'. Besides Berne, his followers include Marty Ehrlich, who took over leadership of the Sextet when Hemphill was incapacitated, and Saturday Night Live bandmember/Night Music host David Sanborn (so it's no coincidence that the Julius Hemphill Big Band version of "Countryside," with the leader on soprano, sounds like the SNL band). Ehrlich covered three Hemphill compositions (including "Dogon A.D.") on 2009's Things Have Got To Change for Clean Feed and got me thinking about Julius. Allen Lowe, who had Hemphill on a couple of his early albums, pulled my coat to the Sextet's Fat Man and the Hard Blues, currently my favorite way to hear Hemphill.

Here's an '89 performance of "The Hard Blues" with a Boston-based big band:


Blogger Herb Levy said...

writing music in which the improvisers had to play in a style dictated by the form of the work rather than in an idiosyncratic personal style, (which the three post-Coleman performer/composers you mention here all did to varying degrees, as did plenty of other folks) WAS "the next big improvisational approach".

And, yeah, Ornette Coleman is distinctly missing from your list of "next big etc".

4:32 AM  

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