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Clip: Ratliff on Julius Hemphill

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  • Carl Z.
    I did not realize there was a group devoted to Juluis Hemphill s compositions, much less one with Marty Ehrlich and Pheeroan akLaff (two musicians whose work
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 11, 2006
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      I did not realize there was a group devoted to Juluis Hemphill's
      compositions, much less one with Marty Ehrlich and Pheeroan akLaff
      (two musicians whose work was heard often when I programmed Fear &
      Whiskey). (For anyone unfamiliar with Hemphill, his World Saxophone
      Quartet was one of the most delightful jazz ensembles I have ever


      A Musician With a Language All His Own

      Article Tools Sponsored By
      Published: November 11, 2006

      The strongest aural image from Thursday night's concert of Julius
      Hemphill's music at the Miller Theater came from a cello. It was
      played by Erik Friedlander, and it was a toothy, driving, rhythmic
      ostinato over Pheeroan akLaff's 11-beat drum rhythm, which sounded
      like an asymmetric James Brown beat. On top of that was Marty Ehrlich,
      playing alto saxophone, and Baikida Carroll, playing trumpet, phrasing
      the spare theme cleanly and then taking off into solos.

      Mr. Hemphill was a jazz saxophonist, but the cello's prominence in one
      of his greatest pieces of music — instead of, say, a saxophone's — as
      well as the collision of time tricks and funk and open space all say
      something loud and clear: composer.

      The piece was "Dogon A.D.," from Mr. Hemphill's album of the same
      name, released in 1972. (He died in 1995.) This is one of the greatest
      records of the last 40 years in jazz, though not too many people know
      it. It first came out on Mr. Hemphill's own label, Mbari, and was
      reissued more widely in 1977. "Dogon A.D." didn't engender a school of
      jazz formed in its own image; it isn't obviously virtuosic, and not
      enough people heard it anyway. Its copyright situation has prevented
      it from having ever been issued on CD. The Miller concert, rightly,
      presented the entire album, all three long tracks of it, mixed in with
      other pieces in other, completely different instrumental formats.

      Mr. Hemphill's work is smart and sweet-tempered and immensely likable,
      but it's all over the map. To represent it decently, the Miller
      concert, part of the "Composer Portraits" series, required a whole
      squadron of musicians from different disciplines: that "Dogon A. D."
      setup; an all-saxophones sextet; a classical solo pianist; and Ethel,
      a classical string quartet. To get the fullness of his activities,
      there could also have been an orchestra, poets, dancers, actors and
      film. But within practical boundaries, the concert was just right — a
      broad and accurate representation of some of Mr. Hemphill's best work,
      ending with the cast of 14 parading through the audience.

      Mr. Hemphill, a gifted saxophonist both dry-toned and expressive, grew
      up in Fort Worth and spent his early 30s as part of a multimedia arts
      collective in St. Louis, the Black Arts Group. This was where he first
      saw the possibility of composing through such varied formats. He
      composed and conceptualized like crazy, and he managed to develop his
      own harmonic language, too, really mastering it toward the end of his
      life with his saxophone sextet. (Mr. Ehrlich leads it now, in Mr.
      Hemphill's name.) You can tell a sweet-and-sour Hemphill voicing in a
      second, just as you can with Ellington. The sextet poured out those
      voicings in some of Mr. Hemphill's loveliest pieces — "The Moat and
      the Bridge," "Three Step," "Jiji Tune" — and some shorter, cerebral
      ones, too, like "Impulse" and "Opening."

      Mr. Hemphill wrote with very strong rhythmic feeling, even without a
      rhythm section. He rearranged some Charles Mingus pieces for string
      quartet, and that little triptych — the seldom-heard "Mingus Gold" —
      was performed with intensity on Thursday by Ethel. But he also
      internalized the grammar of rhythm and blues and gospel. The concert's
      closing piece, "The Hard Blues," has a baritone-saxophone bass line
      right out of Doc Pomus's "Lonely Avenue"; Alex Harding, the baritonist
      of the saxophone sextet, motored the whole band with its descending
      stepwise motions.

      The concert showed, too, that he wrote music that had nothing
      whatsoever to do with jazz or recognizably American expression.
      "Tendrils" was performed by three flutes and clarinet, improvising off
      springboards of long-held notes; "Parchment," played by the pianist
      Ursula Oppens, with flowing bitonal lines, was straight-up
      post-Debussy classicism.
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