The saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill was born in 1938 in Fort Worth, Texas, where he attended the same high school at Ornette Coleman, who was eight years his senior and said to be his cousin. By the time he reached his early twenties Hemphill was in St Louis, Missouri, where he joined the Black Artists Group. In 1972 he led a recording session that, when released first on his own small Mbari label and then more widely on Arista Freedom, made a lasting impression on many who heard it. On the initial album, called Dogon A.D., Hemphill seemed to have extended the possibilities of the union between the most basic blues and the avant-garde that was implicit in Coleman’s music.
A second album, which he gave the challenging title Coon Bid’ness, contained a track from that first session, titled “The Hard Blues”, in which Hamiet Bluiett’s baritone saxophone was added to Hemphill’s alto, Baikida Carroll’s trumpet, Abdul Wadud’s cello and Philip Wilson’s drums. It had an even more powerful impact on me. Hemphill seemed to have fused the harsh, elemental sound of John Lee Hooker, the warmth and colour of an Ellington small group and the collective exuberance of a Mingus ensemble into something that pointed a way to the future.
Hemphill moved to New York in the early ’70s and immersed himself in the loft scene. He was a busy man between those first recordings and his death in 1995, perhaps most notably with the World Saxophone Quartet, for which he wrote and arranged many pieces. His own albums ranged from solo saxophone recitals to a full big band. Many of them featured the cello of Wadud, with whom Hemphill had a special rapport: as close a relationship between two instrumentalists as any I can think of in jazz. He had a fondness for exposing the music’s overlooked roots, as when he sometimes adopted the name Roi Boyé, or M’Boyé, as a rubric for his projects, harking back to African kingdoms and southern minstrel shows.
The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony is the title of a new box of seven CDs compiled by one of his acolytes, the saxophonist Marty Erlich, from the contents of the Hemphill archive in the Fails Library at New York University. It’s an extraordinarily rich piece of musical archaeology which covers many aspects of Hemphill’s art at satisfying length.
Most of it is culled from live performance, from the 1978 quartet performance with Olu Dara on trumpet, Wadud and the drummer Warren Smith with which the set begins to a coruscating concert by Hemphill and Carroll with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums in a Woodstock club in 1979 with which it concludes. Other participants in the various small groups include the brothers Nels and Alex Cline on guitar and drums, John Carter on clarinet, the guitarist Jack Wilkins, the bass guitarist Jerome Harris and the drummer Michael Carvin. One disc features Hemphill playing with the poets K. Curtis Lyle and Malinké Elliott.
Throughout the listener is struck by how effectively Hemphill was able to blend free blowing with structured composition. Some of his themes have the intensity of bebop leavened with the humour of Monk, but with a down-home flavour that was Hemphill’s own. Whether on alto or soprano, he was a stunningly fluent improviser who took off from a space between Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and headed out into his own territory.
Vigorous and ceaselessly inventive, on alto and soprano he had a marvellously human tone that was most perfectly matched with the sound of Wadud’s cello. What Erlich, in his extensive notes, describes as the “Rosetta stone” of the set is an entire disc of duets recorded in Washington DC in 1989. Somehow Wadud finds a role that combines the functions of bass and guitar while retaining the cello’s own characteristics. He plucks, he bows, he plays double-stops and strums passing chords, while providing a source of energy to match Hemphill’s own. Some of the music is certainly composed, but everything retains the spontaneous urgency of improvisation. On the last of the six pieces, “Downstairs”, which turns out to be a variation on the “Hi-Heel Sneakers”/”Can I Get a Witness” riff, the two men return to the basics they explored on “The Hard Blues” and “Dogon A.D.”.
More unexpected is the inclusion of the arrangements of three Mingus compositions — “Nostalgia in Times Square”, “Alice’s Wonderland” and “Better Git It in Your Soul” — for strings, recorded by the Daedalus String Quartet, Hemphill infusing the ardour characteristic of the composer’s music with an astringency of his own. Recorded at the same Boston concert devoted to Hemphill’s music in 2007 was “Parchment”, a piece for solo piano written for and performed by the pianist Ursula Oppens, his partner in his later years. Two untitled extended pieces for a wind quintet made up of Erlich, the reeds player John Purcell, the bassoonist Janet Grice, the trumpeter Bruce Purse and the trombonist Ray Anderson, recorded in 1981, further demonstrate Hemphill’s interest in classical chamber music and his ability to range between idioms.
Next to the Hemphill/Wadud duets, however, the set’s most valuable disc is the concert with Carroll, Holland and DeJohnette, a decade after the bassist and drummer had first played together, with Miles Davis and then Stan Getz. Throughout three long pieces, Hemphill’s themes trigger ferociously intense playing. The opener, “Mirrors”, contains perhaps the most violent playing I’ve ever heard from DeJohnette, a bold barrage of free creative commentary — particularly under the leader’s long and impassioned improvisation — that culminates in a densely packed solo. Holland emerges in “Dung” with a stunning solo of his own. The final piece, “Would Boogie”, a humorous two-beat exercise in the vein of Mingus’s “My Jelly Roll Soul”, gives DeJohnette an opportunity to take out his melodica, on which he improvises over a noble walking bass.
At $111.93 or £84.99 (see below), this box set isn’t cheap. But its musical and historical value, and the knowledge and care with which it was put together, justify every cent. Julius Hemphill was an important figure in jazz at a time when it was fighting for its identity and its future. His was a voice that reminded us of the enduring potential of the music’s core truths and values, paving the way for the likes of Matana Roberts and Ambrose Akinmusire, and this is a most handsome memorial.
* The photograph of Julius Hemphill was taken by John Begansky Jeffoto in 1980 and is from the booklet accompanying The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony, which is available from New World Records at http://www.newworldrecords.org and from Proper Music in the UK: https://www.propermusic.com/nw80825-the-boye-national-crusade-for-harmony-7cd.html