Thursday, April 25, 2013

Julius Hemphill Big Band

Another sadly underappreciated but masterful jazz performer and composer, Julius Hemphill (1938-1995), released his only big band recording for the Elektra Musician label in 1988 and this was an early jazz album purchased by this blogger a few years afterward.

Hemphill was known to this listener because of his work with the World Saxophone Quartet, another great jazz group that will be covered here subsequently.  But, he also had some amazing solo recordings from the early 1970s until his death and some of these will be featured here later, as well.

In the meantime, Julius Hemphill Big Band is a fabulous recording of complex, adventurous and intricately-performed arrangements that develop their own styles but one can hear echoes of influences, perhaps, from Ellington to Mingus and others.

"At Harmony" begins with a building buzz of sound from the ensemble and then the rumbling drums of Ronnie Burrage before giving a platform for fine solos from trombonist Frank Lacy, Marty Ehrlich on soprano sax, John Stubblefield's tenor, Burrage's drums and the leader's own alto playing.

This piece is followed by the contemplative, moody and gorgeous "Leora" in which Hemphill is the featured soloist and performs with great complexity, depth, feeling and beauty.

"C/Saw" is a fleet, uptempo tune with more great interplay between the band and Hemphill's alto solo followed by a nice electric guitar workout from Jack Wilkins, Lacy's trombone and a solid solo from tenor sax player John Purcell.  Jerome Harris's bass and Burrage's drums hold down the rhythm quite well and Harris's work has a strong funk quality to this listener.

"For Billie," named clearly for the legendary singer Billie Holiday, is a stately, lithe ballad and Hemphill's alto introduces a gorgeous theme with his crystal clear, highly controlled, and highly evocative feeling being well suported by a variety of horns and the rhythm section.  His performance here is just outstanding and is followed by Wilkins's guitar and the unusual pairing of French horns, played by Vincent Chancey and John Clark.

The eight-part, eighteen and a half minute, sprawling epic, "Drunk on God," often gets criticized because of K. Curtis Lyle's abstract, psychedelic and obtuse poetic musings that talk about peyote in Mexico, a character named Nago, the jazz center of Kansas City, and a lot else.  He published Drunk on God & From Out of Nowhere, among his several volumes of work, in 1975.  This blogger has never been bothered by Lyle's contribution and Hemphill's arrangment comes across as seamless with the text, as well as experimental and yet accessible. 

Instrumentally, the work begins quietly and slowly builds with some notable percussion effects by Gordon Gottlieb standing out in the opening sections.  Then, the band begins to raise the intensity and the complex interactions of the horns in particular are striking in the fourth section, "Motion as the Terrible Language of the Future," and Harris's strong bass work anchors the ensemble's work here.

About halfway through the band lays low for a few seconds and then launches into another fantastic section of wild and wonderful sounds for about a minute and then halts while Lyle recites the opening lines of "Gates of Kansas City."  Burrage and Gottlieb lay down some cool rhythms, Hemphill comes out with some striking lines and the ensemble returns just after the 12-minute mark with a toe-tapping groove behind more Hemphill blowing.

A little over a minute later is a nice, laidback trumpet solo from David Hines and at about 14:30 there is a typically soaring, eruptive and distinctive guitar solo from Bill Frisell, who recorded a number of interesting albums for the Elektra Musician/Nonesuch label in the late 80s and into the 90s, while the band backs him up with a bluesy groove.

Then at about 16 minutes, an R & B like pattern, very catchy, is laid down and the band begins to move with Lyle into the grand finale, building into a richly complex crescendo and a phenomenal release of tension.  This piece is exhilirating and inspiring, whether or not Lyle's highly stylized poetry and recitation is tangential or not.

This great album concludes with "Bordertown," a nine and a half minute ballad with another fine, wistful and fragile melody by Hemphill, who also plays a somewhat rare solo on soprano saxophone.  After a few minutes, the pace picks up and has a strong blues feel with another fine solo from Frisell.  After some more inspired ensemble playing behind Frisell's keening and wailing, the move abruptly shifts back to the relaxed theme and brings the proceedings to an end with a bit of a funky groove and more excellent horn interplay behind Hemphill's slightly abrasive soprano before coming to an abrupt close.

It's too bad Hemphill didn't get to make more big band records; too bad he died just a few years later, after being incapacitated by heart surgery and diabeted; too bad he didn't get more recognition.  He did have devoted students, however, most notably Ehrlich, who carried on Hemphill's work in performances and on recordings, and the distinctive and highly experimental altoist Tim Berne, who will be covered here soon.

Julius Hemphill Big Band is not easy to find, but is well worth the effort and funds if hearing inventive and expressive modern big band music is appealing.  It is a superior work by a great, if little known, artist.

Julius Hemphill Big Band (Elektra Musician, 1988)

1.   At Harmony  8:55
2.  Leora  5:53
3.  C/Saw  8:19
4.  For Billie  8:24
5.  Drunk on God  18:38
6.  Bordertown  9:27

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