Clip: Ratliff on Julius Hemphill
- 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
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By BEN RATLIFF
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
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