Tuesday, July 30, 2013

World Saxophone Quartet: Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music

Hailing from St. Louis, where a great many top-notch jazz musicians came up from, the members of the World Saxophone Quartet formed an ensemble that was unparalleled in its unity, intertwined sense of harmony, and able to generate a sound that was almost symphonic in its power and dynamics. 

The Quartet made a series of fine records for Nonesuch in the later 1980s and early 1990s, prior to the death of alto and soprano saxophonist Julius Hemphill and have recorded since with several guest members, but they recorded several albums for the Italian label Black Saint that are also phenomenal.

One of the great recordings by this outfit is the 1986 release Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in which the group performed six pieces at an early December 1985 concert with tremendous emotion, tight efficiency, and a startling sense of interplay that made them one of the best, if under-recognized and under-appreciated, jazz ensembles of that, or perhaps any, era.

Hemphill contributed three pieces, the opener "One/Waltz/Time" as well as the two closing pieces "Open Air (For Tommy)" and "Georgia Blue."  He was probably the most adventurous of the contributors and his amazing big band album profiled here recently demonstrates more of what he brought to the jazz scene from the early 1970s until his passing in the mid-90s.

Yet, all the tracks are strong, including David Murray's "Great Peace," Oliver Lake's "Kind'a Up" and Hamiett Bluiett's "Paper Works."  Bluiett, in particular, makes great use of his baritone sax and alto clarinet, to give a rich, gritty tone that really holds down the bottom.  Murray's tenor, augmented by bass clarinet, has a strong, clear tone, showing why he was something of a young phenom when he emerged as a solo performer in the mid-1970s.  Lake's alto and soprano playing complement that of Hemphill as they harmonize extremely well together, as well as with the other two players.

The sound on this live recording is excellent, courtesy of engineer Kazunori Sugiyama, an executive with the Japanese DIW label which recorded the Art Ensemble of Chicago, David Murray, and other great jazz players in the late 1980s and early 1990s and who co-founded John Zorn's Tzadik label, for which Sugiyama is often a co-producer and general administrator.

While it is unusual to have a group of like instruments without an established rhythm section of bass and drums, but the reality is that the WSQ did have a rhythm section and front line blended together in a perfect (OK, near perfect) sense of harmonic interplay that was unrivaled at its peak.  It's too bad that this great ensemble didn't get more attention for what they put together in those glory years of the 1980s and 1990s.  They certainly deserved it with excellent albums like this one.

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