Julius Hemphill: Economical Orchestration and the Hard Blues

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 07.08.11 in Spotlights

In a more perfect world, Julius Hemphill (1938-95) would be better remembered as one of the key jazz composers of the last 40 years. Not least for his role as principal writer for the World Saxophone Quartet, starting in the mid ’70s – thereby influencing a raft of reed choirs that took it as inspiration. WSQ made the standalone saxophone section into a standard ensemble: jazz’s string quartet. California’s Rova was founded around the same time, but many came later: New York’s 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, Boston’s Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet, the New Orleans Saxophone Quartet… and other “single-instrument choirs” like the quartet Clarinet Summit.

Hemphill’s “Steppin’,” the title track of WSQ’s breakout second album recorded in 1978, set out their multi-vectored polyrhythmic approach. In the first two minutes, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone play a funky syncopated bass line under flowing soprano and flute, all four horns play in harmony, and then flute and two saxes collectively improvise over the bass clarinet figure, freely interweaving over a solid foundation. Recombination, contrasting colors, driving, sometimes overlapping riffs under solos, R&B overtones: That was a WSQ template. The four voices stay busy all the time.

Bandmates Oliver Lake (like Hemphill playing alto and soprano), David Murray (tenor and bass clarinet) and Hamiet Bluiett (mostly on baritone) brought tunes too, but Hemphill brought many more; save for Bluiett’s opening/closing theme “Hattie Wall” on 1981′s Live in Zurich all the tunes are Julius’s, and point up his range. On “Touchic” you can hear the string-quartet parallels in the diverging/converging lines, funk in the rhythm and traces of Stevie Wonder soul in the melodic writing. There’s a revved-up revival of “Steppin’,” and lush reed voicings on “My First Winter.” “Bordertown,” led by Julius’s soprano, is a lilting earworm of a tune, also recorded by his one-shot, fitfully successful 1988 Big Band.

He had already made his mark in modern jazz before he co-founded the WSQ. Born in Fort Worth, where he studied with future Clarinet Summit member John Carter, Hemphill played in various blues, funk and R&B bands before he really got rolling in St. Louis in the early ’70s. Like Lake and Bluiett he was a member of the city’s Black Artists Group (BAG), inspired by the Chicago AACM collective‘s ways of rethinking standard instrumentation – which sometimes involved getting rid of the rhythm section, as WSQ would do.

His elusive debut Dogon A.D. (finally being reissued in 2011) and “The Hard Blues” from the follow-up Coon Bid’ness (reissued as Reflections) were recorded in St. Louis in 1972. They’re stunners, not least for Julius’s own dry, acerbic, bluesy alto saxophone (and flute), and Abdul Wadud’s extraordinary work on cello, reconceived as a sort of bowed/plucked country blues guitar; the match-up between his grinding, resonant tone and Hemphill’s horns is electrifying. For proof, listen to Reflections‘ “Skin 1″ and “2,” with a cello-and-congas beat that seems to blow right off the West African savannah, under Hemphill’s and Arthur Blythe’s searing altos and Bluiett’s guttural bari, or the slow stomping “Hard Blues” with Bluiett, trumpeter Baikida Carroll, ex-Art Ensemble of Chicago/Paul Butterfield Blues Band drummer Philip Wilson, and Wadud at his spiky bluesy best.

Hemphill’s overdubbed 1977 solo albums Blue Boyé and Roi Boyé and the Gotham Minstrels were born of economic necessity. Improvising over prepared tapes of his own alto, soprano and flute was an affordable way to play live with accompaniment. In those layered parts you can hear the World Saxophone Quartet sound emerging; the quartet started up around the same time. (Hemphill and Oliver Lake also recorded a sidebar duo album, Buster Bee.)

The Hemphill/Wadud partnership continued through a live duo album from ’76, the following year’s salty Raw Materials and Residuals (for trio, adding Art Ensemble drummer Don Moye) and 1980′s Flat Out Jump Suite (with cornetist Olu Dara and drummer Warren Smith, where the funky “Body” is the standout).

Hemphill worked with WSQ through the ’80s, on fine records like Revue and Dances and Ballads, but his health began to deteriorate, owing to diabetes. Touring became more difficult, and in 1989 his bandmates unceremoniously ousted him. While they’ve made some good records since with a long succession of fourth members, the original lineup remains the best.

In conversation in 1994, Hemphill said they may have done him a favor, kicking him out. By then he had a saxophone sextet, formed to play his multi-media “saxophone opera” Long Tongues. The expanded group recorded Fat Man and the Hard Blues in 1991. Compared to WSQ, the close-interval harmonies are even more lush, the blue moans more blue (“Anchorman,” for tenor Andrew White), the fetching melody statements that much more stately, and the free swarming more full bodied. (The other players: Marty Ehrlich, Carl Grubbs, James Carter and Sam Furnace.) In 1995, Hemphill passed away.

He may not get all the credit he deserves, but he hasn’t been forgotten. Ehrlich reconvened the sextet to play some of his undocumented music, in concert and for the album At Dr. King’s Table. Former protégé Tim Berne and onetime student David Sanborn made an album of Julius’s tunes, Diminutive Mysteries; Ehrlich and pianist