A box set of recordings by the late saxophonist Julius Hemphill reasserts his position in the front line of the black avant garde.
Julius Hemphill’s membership between 1976-89 of The World Saxophone Quartet, which was that most unusual things, a commercially successful avant garde jazz group, has tended to overshadow his status as one of black America’s greatest 20th century modernists.
…The earliest of the five albums contained in this box set, Raw Materials And Residuals, was recorded in 1977 during the twilight of the lofts. As much as Suicide’s first album, also produced in 1977, it now feels like a quintessential document of a particularly tense New York moment. Taped at the end of a year marked by the Son of Sam murders, the burning of the Bronx and the citywide blackout, the searing multidirectional melodic and rhythmic attack of Hemphill’s alto, Abdul Wadud’s cello and Famodou Don Moye’s array of Sun Percussion enact a sonic analogue of a city wired on claustrophobic nervous energy.
Three years later, Hemphill e Wadud were on the outskirts of Milan, with drummer Warren Smith and trumpeter Olu Dara. Like many of their contemporaries, they had come to Italy to record at the Barigozzi studios of Giovanni Bonandrini’s Black Saint and Soul Note labels, which since the mid-70s had provided a European refuge for musicians whose art brought little honour back in Amerikkka. Perhaps as a consequence, the music on Flat Out Jump Suite, despite that title, is more reflective and expansive, though no less compelling, for this is still an art of exiles, and on “Mind (First Part)” and “Body” especially, one that is suffused with the blues.
By 1980 Hemphill and Smith were back in New York where they recorded Chile New York: Sound Environment, the sonic component in a still existing sculptural installation by ceramics and visual artist Jeff Schlanger which was exhibited in response to the 1973 CIA-backed coup which overthrew Chile’s democratic socialist government, led by Salvador Allende, and installed the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. In a space charged with reverb and punctured by Smith’s dramatic interventions on timpani, vibes and tuned percussion, Hemphill’s overdubbed saxophones and flutes vocalise long ribbons of melody that weep and moan and fray at the edges. Ripped out of context, the music sounds abstract but deeply felt, and the project restated Hemphill’s commitment to the kind of politicised public intermedia art he had once made under the auspices of BAG.
A decade later, Fat Man And The Hard Blues (1991) and (1993) were recorded in more prosaic circumstances, after Hemphill had been ejected from the WSQ and formed a new saxophone sextet. As a consequence it’s hard not to hear both records as a continuation by other means of the WSQ’s dynamic raids on the blues continuum – this is vivid, intense music animated by swaggering R&B, swing-era saxophonics, eerie spirituals and dissonant multiphonics. Due to ill health, including diabetes and a heart condition, Hemphill conducted but wasn’t able to play on Five Chord Stud. He died in 1995 aged 57.