The enduring soul of Julius Hemphill | Bleader

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The enduring soul of Julius Hemphill

Posted By on 01.12.12 at 05:15 PM

Yesterday I posted about the results of the annual Jazz Critics Poll and included my individual ballot. My number three selection in the reissue category was Dogon A.D., a stone-cold classic by alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill. The album was cut in 1972 and originally released on the reedist's own Mbari label, though it got an early reissue (with international distribution) by Arista/Freedom in 1975. It's been in and out of print since then, but it got the deluxe treatment in 2011 thanks to Chicago's own International Phonograph label. The reissue doesn't include any additional material, but as with the label's reissue of Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes (my number two jazz reissue of 2011), it beautifully re-creates the original look of the vinyl release with a glossy cardboard gatefold (there's also an insert with art from the original Mbari edition). And of course the music is brilliant.

The title track of Dogon A.D. is one of the great minimalist jazz themes, with an insistent, indelible ostinato by cellist Abdul Wadud and a funky beat by drummer Philip Wilson, over which Hemphill and trumpeter Baikida Carroll blow an equally simple unison theme. But the piece quickly opens up, with some of the most emotionally potent, hypnotic, and nonchalantly soulful improvising I've ever heard—especially from Hemphill, whose tart tone both cuts like a knife and soothes like a smear of aloe. As Robert Palmer put it in his liner notes for the 1975 reissue, "There is a starkness to the music that separates it decisively from all the glib fusions perpetuated in the name of jazz/rock, and Hemphill and . . . Carroll do not deliver fashionably funky solos but instead testify at length, with a fervor reminiscent of some of the Southern and Southwestern shouting preachers recorded by the Library of Congress during the thirties."

The album's closing track, "The Hard Blues," adds the honking baritone sax of Hamiet Bluiett, and it's almost as perfect. The whole album is a masterpiece, thanks to the firepower of the musicians and the novel arrangements—it's a crying shame that it's been so hard to find since it was first released. Jonathan Horwich, who runs International Phonograph, has returned yet another vital piece of jazz history to circulation. Below you can hear an excerpt of the 14-plus-minute title track.

The impressive Lithuanian label No Business also shared some terrific Hemphill music last year, releasing a double CD called Live at Kassiopeia that features solos and duets by Hemphill and great German bassist Peter Kowald. It was recorded live in 1987 in Wuppertal, Germany (the bassist's hometown), and it's all totally improvised. The two players interact with an easy rapport—few European free-jazz musicians worked more extensively and naturally with their American counterparts than Kowald, and Hemphill was among the most open-minded figures to emerge from the 70s jazz scene—even as their slightly different approaches create a nice tension. Kowald doesn't use repetition like Wadud does, preferring a more muscular and propulsive style a la William Parker, and Hemphill adapts with a rangier kind of playing. Live at Kassiopeia captures a side of Hemphill that his studio work rarely explored at such length—the centerpiece of disc two is a single cut that runs more than 36 minutes. Below you can check out the first duet.

Julius Hemphill, "Dogon A.D." (excerpt)

Julius Hemphill & Peter Kowald, "Duo 1"

Today's playlist:

Ronnie McNeir, Love's Comin' Down (Expansion/Motown)
Sivuca, Forró e Frevo/Forró e Frevo 3 (EMI, Brazil)
Abir Nasraoui, Heyma (Institut du Monde Arabe)
Markku Ounaskari, Samuli Mikkonen, and Per Jørgensen, Kuára (ECM)
The Minits, Follow Your Heart: The Sounds of Memphis Recordings (Kent)

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