‘Mastery and Transgression’ in Music That Bridges Genres
Julius Hemphill was a strong force in American music from his first public appearances and recordings in the late 1960s to his death at the age of 57 in 1995. Whether it’s saxophone or flute – or even, as in his dubbed solo “Blue Boyé ”, both immediately – he mixed folk traditions with a joyful avant-garde note.
Growing up in Fort Worth, he listened to R&B-steeped jazz and country twang. The booklet with a new set of Hemphill’s compositions on seven CDs, many of which were previously unpublished and from his archives at New York University, quotes from an interview about those early years: “It was musically rich,” he said. “I could hear Hank Williams coming from the jukebox at Bunker, the white bar. And Louis Jordan, Son House and Earl Bostic from the box at Ethel, the Black Bar across the street. “
Hemphill may have started with these related, albeit separate, reference points. However, the diverse recordings of the new set “The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony,” published by New World Records and named after one of Hemphill’s touring projects, show how thoroughly he has adapted and revitalized these early sources.
The first two CDs contain some formative small group recordings from the late 1970s as well as an amazing duo set (date and location unknown) by Hemphill and cellist Abdul Wadud, one of his key collaborators. On the track “Rhapsody” you can hear Hemphill’s vigilance on the soprano saxophone while Wadud alternates between thick, jingling playing and lyrical bowing. Hemphill’s melodic sensitivity, smooth even when frugal, is present throughout, even when his sound production becomes whistling or frenzied.
Before Hemphill rose to become band leader, he came into contact with other curious, improvising players such as trumpeter Lester Bowie. Hemphill also began experimenting with theatrical work. He started his own label and helped found the Black Artists Group (known as BAG) in St. Louis along with poets, dancers and other saxophonist-composers like Oliver Lake. After a BAG performance in 1971 was interrupted by a bomb threat, it was a Hemphill score that could be heard after the all-clear. (This episode is told in Benjamin Looker’s book, Point From Which Creation Begins, a pivotal BAG story and resource on Hemphill’s work.)
Hemphill later reunited with Lake in the World Saxophone Quartet, which played open-minded spaces with multiple genres such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Hemphill devoted himself to jazz, but did not write it exclusively and wrote solo and chamber music works for the virtuoso pianist Ursula Oppens, his partner towards the end of his life. (Look for the lively piano quintet that gives the album its title in Tzadik’s One Atmosphere release.)
The New World box set also includes a CD of Hemphill chamber music. In addition to a work written for Oppens, it includes the first publication of a 2007 Daedalus Quartet performance of “Mingus Gold”, a composition from 1988 in which Hemphill arranged pieces by Charles Mingus.
These are not just transcriptions, as the attitude towards “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” proves. During the opening, the cello part occasionally comes close to Mingus ‘own bass motifs, although it also deviates from the source material, with the other strings pausing to meditate before the quartet delights with Mingus’ theme.
Hemphill’s experimental, yet song-like approach linked him with adventurous pop artists; 1993-94 he toured with Björk to support their album “Debut”. And, like Lake, Hemphill used to say that his diverse activities were not evidence of a Scattershot sensitivity, but rather of a complex, integrated purpose. The liner notes for the new box set contain one of his better-known statements: “Well, these days you often hear people talking about tradition, tradition, tradition. But they have tunnel vision in that tradition. Because the tradition in African American music is as broad as it is outdoors. “
Since his death, Hemphill’s influence has widened that view. His most famous composition, “Dogon AD”, with its addicting, 11/16 percussion groove, was memorably covered by pianist Vijay Iyer on his 2009 trio album “Historicity”. Player composers like Tim Berne and Marty Ehrlich, who wrote the liner notes for the new release, also swear by Hemphill.
Why aren’t his contributions better known? One reason for this is that his most famous album, also called “Dogon AD” (1972), was out of print for a long time. (It was available on CD for a short time in the 2010s, but now that version and the original LP are fetching high prices in the second-hand market.) Another reason is likely to be in monitoring the boundary between jazz and classical traditions (a subset of the major problems of racial exclusion in classical music). Most classic programmers are probably unaware of the breadth of Hemphill’s legacy. His music has occasionally been featured in mostly classical series like the Composer Portraits at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, but he’s usually perceived as a jazz artist, period.
But while his music can vibrate hard, he’s also explored more airy, less driving areas. A long title on New World’s chamber music disc, “Unknown Title No. 1”, documents a performance of a brass and brass quintet by Hemphill in 1981.
The leisurely, sharp material that was heard at the beginning is a far cry from “Dogon AD”, “Rhapsody” or the Glosses on Mingus. After detours into wild improvisation, the performance finally races to a wild, tuba-driven conclusion. However, the route to get there is clear in the available Hemphill catalog.
When Vijay Iyer’s cover of “Dogon AD” earned him praise, he described in a profile what a transformative experience seeing Hemphill in concert in 1991 had been. Hemphill’s 1988 album “Big Band” “inspires me as much today as it did then,” said Iyer in an email, noting the important contributions made by Hemphill and BAG during the “era of self-determination initiatives by black artists,” which also included the association to promote creative musicians in Chicago.
Regarding the experience of seeing a 1992 duo performance by Hemphill and Wadud that was later released as the Oakland Duets album, Iyer wrote, “I was amazed at the feeling of mastery and transgression at the same time. I think that describes his music in a nutshell. “