Texas-born alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill (1938) moved to St Louis in 1968 where
he became a leader of the Black Artists' Group (BAG). He staged multimedia
events such as
Kawaida (1972), The Orientation Of Sweet Willie Rollbar (1973)
and Obituary (1974).
His status as one of the leading composers of his time was established by
pieces in which bluesy melodies became the scaffolding of complex geometric
architectures. It started with the three lengthy pieces of
Dogon AD (february 1972), featuring Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Abdul Wadud on cello and Philip Wilson on drums: the 14-minute Dogon A.D., the 15-minute flute solo The Painter, the eight-minute Rites.
The Hard Blues, from the same session, appeared on Coon Bid'ness (january 1975), that included new compositions for a sextet with baritonist Hamiet Bluiett, Wadud, altoist Arthur Blythe, drummer Barry Altschul and conga player Daniel Zebulon.
After relocating to New York in 1973 and performing in Anthony Braxton's saxophone-only ensembles, in 1976 Hemphill formed the World Saxophone Quartet with fellow saxophonists Oliver Lake (alto), David Murray (tenor) and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone). The original intention, as displayed on the freely improvised Point Of No Return (june 1977) and in particular with the 24-minute Scared Sheetless, was to pursue a bold program of dissonance.
Steppin' With (december 1978) contained Hemphill's Steppin' and
R&B as well as Murray's P.O. in Cairo.
The double LP Blue Boye (january 1977), entirely performed by Hemphill himself
on alto, soprano, flute and percussion, was perhaps Hemphill's most eloquent aesthetic statement: eight elegant, intricate mid-size excursions into the secrets of sound from the perspective of an art that began with the blues.
Pieces such as the 11-minute Countryside, the 13-minute Hotend,
the 10-minute OK Rubberband and the 12-minute C.M.E felt much
more "dense" than solos.
And somehow Hemphill's jarred, fractured phrasing crafted mellow, romantic
atmospheres, like a shy, nervous lover.
Roi Boye and the Gotham Minstrels (march 1977) refined the concept in a series
of performances for overdubbed instruments (alto, soprano and flute), while
Raw Materials and Residuals (november 1977) added a lyrical element thanks to
Wadud's cello and Don Moye's percussions (particularly in
Mirrors, Plateau and G Song).
The intellectual phase was closed by Flat Out Jump Suite (june 1980), a four-movement suite Ear, Mind, Heart and Body) for a chamber-jazz quartet with Wadud, trumpeter Olu Dara and percussionist Warren Smith.
These massive works were complemented by lighter duets:
Live In New York (may 1976) with Abdul Wadud
and Buster Bee (march 1978) with Oliver Lake.
In the meantime, Hemphill also composed
the four-movement suite for seven woodwinds Water Music (1976)
and the soundtrack to a multimedia
installation, Chile New York (may 1980).
During the 1980s the World Saxophone Quartet absorbed most of Hemphill's energies. Hemphill continued to be the main composer of the quartet's music through W.S.Q. (march 1980) and Revue (october 1980), but the quartet soon began to play more accessible music (and often covers).
Live At Kassiopeia (january 1987) documents a live performance by Julius Hemphill and bassist Peter Kowald three Hemphill solos, a 32-minute solo by Kowald and duets.
After leaving the World Saxophone Quartet in 1989, Hemphill, who had already
displayed his restlessness with an album for Big Band (february 1988),
invested more into highbrow compositions such as the
multimedia opera Long Tongues (1989), that also debuted his saxophone
the ballet The Last Supper At Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land (1990),
Plan B (1993) for jazz sextet and symphony orchestra,
the theatrical piece A Bitter Glory (1994).
His saxophone Sextet (with Marty Ehrlich, Carl Grubbs, Hames Carter, Andrew White and Sam Furnace) recorded a surprisingly fragmented album,
Fat Man and the Hard Blues (july 1991).
His health rapidly deteriorating, Hemphill organized the Sextett (altoists Tim Berne, Marty Ehrlich and Sam Furnace, tenors James Carter and Andrew White and baritonist Fred Ho) of Five Chord Stud (november 1993) to play his new compositions, including Five Chord Stud.
His last collaborations were Live From The New Music Cafe (september 1991) with Wadud and percussionist Joe Bonadio, and Oakland Duets (november 1992) with Wadud.
Julius Hemphill died in 1995.
More Hemphill compositions were released posthumously on At Dr King's Table (april 1997) and Tim Berne's Diminutive Mysteries (september 1992).
One Atmosphere (2003) added the quintet for piano and strings One Atmosphere (1992), the four-movement suite for seven woodwinds Water Music (1976) and the trio Savannah Suite.
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