Reviews of Recent Recordings
Julius Hemphill Quartet
Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. must lie somewhere very near the top of the Top 10 List of Greatest Jazz Debut Recordings. Hemphill had recorded just one previous album, The Collected Poem for Blind Lemon Jefferson, a duet with poet K. Curtis Lyle, the year before. But this quartet date with trumpeter Baikida Carroll, cellist Abdul Wadud, and drummer Philip Wilson – rightly – was the first released on his own Mbari label. Few albums have ever announced so unequivocally the arrival of a major new talent; it’s simply one of the most vital and exciting jazz albums ever recorded. Saxophone Colossus (Prestige) may have given the world its first full measure of Sonny Rollins, or Unit Structures (Blue Note) of Cecil Taylor, but even those artists had several albums under their belts when they made their recorded breakthrough. Hemphill burst fully formed onto vinyl on his very first album. Not only is the playing at a very high level of virtuosity, but Hemphill’s concept of the small jazz band betrays serious consideration of the sound, balance, and role of the instruments. This spirit of confident risk taking is heard in his compositions as well. Packed full of memorable riffs, extended linear development, and formal twists, they display both his grounding in African American tradition and an irresistible urge toward innovation. This mature control and mastery of the art of writing for improvisers marked the arrival of a major jazz composer.
Hemphill built his fresh evaluation of the jazz tradition from the ground up, beginning with his band. Wadud’s cello is the most obvious sonic change. The cello’s sound falls closer to the register of a human voice or a saxophone than the bass. This must have been part of the cello’s attraction for Hemphill, who was besotted with the sound of the saxophone his entire career, if his work with the saxophone-only World Saxophone Quartet and his own Sextet is any indication. A regular in Hemphill’s bands for most of the 1970s, Wadud assumes the role of the bass in conventional jazz combos – sometimes. More often that not, he’s sliding between his function in the rhythm section and his role as a third horn soloist. Sometimes the percussive twang of his strings doubles up the drums, too. Drums often dominate a jazz ensemble (think Blakey, Roach, Elvin Jones), but Wilson was one of the most elusive of drummers. He could play so quietly and sparely that the drums become more of a highlighter of the beat or an occasional commentator on it. His playing was eloquent as much for what he implied as for what he stated. But if he was the master of the pregnant silence, he could just as easily bear down on the beat and kick the band’s ass or ramp up the energy level in group improvisations. Carroll comes across as one of the major inheritors of Clifford Brown’s full, warm sound and lyricism. Yet his use of extended techniques, the off-center timing of his phrases, and his ability to shape lines out of dissonant intervals unconnected to song form place the hard-bop legacy in an entirely different context.
Hemphill’s compositions also provide a new context for the jazz tradition. Hemphill and Carroll lance the air with the funky blues-drenched riffs of the title track. Its blues singer intensity declares its connection to African American roots, but the tune grows increasingly abstract, its parts don’t start or stop where you expect them to, and at points the tune scurries away from the underlying funky beat with long spidery phrases. Wilson keeps knocking the beat out from under the tune, then propping it back up while Wadud grounds it with gritty vamps and punchy licks of his own. “The Hard Blues” oscillates in a similar way between the beautiful rage of the blues and the daring of free jazz. “Rites” compresses an astonishing variety of phrase lengths and shapes in to a short span; there’s a Jelly Roll Morton density of ideas. “The Painter,” like “The Hard Blues” and “Dogon A.D.” uses a vamp as the foundation for melodic and rhythmic variations, although it’s a gentler figure than in the other pieces. Hemphill’s flute pushes the pretty melody into ever longer and more involved lines – another example of how he can keep the melodic appeal of a song in a far more abstract and extended composition. This respect for the fundamental melodic and rhythmic appeal of jazz coupled with a willingness to reshape, deconstruct, and push the music’s constituent elements, appears here full blown and it would remain a hallmark of Hemphill’s writing his entire life.
This same grounded innovation marks Hemphill’s improvising as well. “The Hard Blues” features a patient exposition of ideas, building and intensifying over its full length that sounds almost preconceived. Yet it is clearly the inspiration of the moment – one of those solos that bursts out fully formed at the instant of creation. His “Dogon A.D.” solo bristles with snarls and menacing growls and eruptions of long, dangerously angled lines that he strews over the backbeat in dark exultation. His solo on “The Painter,” proves he’s his own man on flute as well, avoiding Eric Dolphy’s widely influential birdsong contours and sharp tone for a more intimate sound and his own sense of melodic invention.
But it’s the strength of the entire band that makes the album a special joy. Their flexibility makes the collective improvising on “Rites” an especially colorful weave. Carroll is by turns lyrical and abrasive, his tone alternating between too hot to touch and a mellow sweetness. Wadud rockets between abstract woody taps, pithy lines, and sobbing arco, between driving rhythm work and contrapuntal solo voice. Wilson circles over his kit, bass drum phrases making the ensemble’s path rough and stony, while his smooth cymbal shimmers create a smooth surface that the band slides crazily along. Carroll is an especially sensitive foil for Hemphill. On “The Painter” his long tones provide a flat surface for JAH to dance on; he then interjects a tangential thought or an independent idea with the proper emotional resonance that jostles the flow of the piece, creating asymmetry. The entire album is just beautifully balanced and passionate. Like a Romaire Bearden street scene, it portrays the triumph and tragedy of everyday life, refracted through an utterly modern lens, an Afro-modernism as compelling and viscerally charged as any produced at the time.
The International Phonograph reissue features the colorful Dennis Pohl collage cover of the 1977 Arista/Freedom reissue that brought the self-produced and barely distributed original to a wider audience. For completists, the starker black and white original cover is reproduced as a folded insert. The package also unites the complete session on one disc. “The Hard Blues,” certainly one of Hemphill’s most well known and most covered tunes, was recorded at the same time as the other tracks and features baritone saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett as a guest. It wasn’t released until 1975 on Arista/Freedom’s Coon Bid’ness. Hearing the complete session on one disc only emphasizes what a historically important date this session is. The album is simply a masterpiece and it should never have gone out of print.