‘Mastery and Transgression’ in Music That Bridges Genres

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A new box set showcases Julius Hemphill’s work as a composer, saxophonist and flutist on the boundary between jazz and classical styles.

Julius Hemphill was a vigorous force in American music from his first public performances and recordings in the late 1960s until his death, at 57, in 1995. Whether playing saxophone or flute — or even, as on his overdubbed solo “Blue Boyé,” both at once — he blended folk traditions with a joyous avant-garde edge.

Growing up in Fort Worth, he heard R&B-infused jazz and country twang. The booklet included with a new seven-disc set of Hemphill’s compositions, many previously unreleased and drawn from his archive at New York University, quotes from an interview about those early years: “It was musically rich,” he said. “I could hear Hank Williams coming out of the jukebox at Bunker’s, the white bar. And Louis Jordan, Son House and Earl Bostic from the box at Ethel’s, the Black bar across the street.”

Hemphill may have started with those related, if segregated, reference points. But the widely varied recordings on the new set — “The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony,” issued by New World Records and named after one of Hemphill’s touring projects — show how thoroughly he adapted and reinvigorated those early sources.

The first two discs contain some formative late-’70s small-group recordings, as well as an astonishing duo set (date and location unknown) by Hemphill and the cellist Abdul Wadud, one of his crucial collaborators. On the track “Rhapsody,” you can hear Hemphill’s alertness on soprano saxophone, as Wadud switches between thick, strummed playing and lyrical bowing. Hemphill’s melodic sensibility, supple even when spare, is present throughout, even when his sound production turns piping or frenzied.

Before Hemphill’s emergence as a bandleader, he came into contact with other inquisitive, improvising players like the trumpeter Lester Bowie. Hemphill began experimenting with theatrical works, too. He started his own label, and in St. Louis helped launch the Black Artists Group (known as BAG) alongside poets, dancers and other saxophonist-composers, like Oliver Lake. After a 1971 BAG performance was interrupted by a bomb threat, it was a Hemphill score that was heard after the all-clear had been given. (That episode is recounted in Benjamin Looker’s book “Point From Which Creation Begins,” a crucial history of BAG and resource about Hemphill’s work.)

Hemphill later joined forces again with Lake in the World Saxophone Quartet, which played open-minded, poly-genre spaces like the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Devoted to jazz but not exclusively defined by it, Hemphill wrote solo and chamber works for the virtuoso pianist Ursula Oppens, his partner toward the end of his life. (Search out the Tzadik release “One Atmosphere” to hear the vivacious piano quintet that gives that album its title.)

The New World box set also contains a disc of Hemphill chamber music. In addition to a work written for Oppens, it includes the premiere release of a 2007 Daedalus Quartet performance of “Mingus Gold,” a 1988 composition in which Hemphill arranged tunes by Charles Mingus.

These are not straight transcriptions, as the take on “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” proves. During its opening, the cello part occasionally comes close to Mingus’s own bass motifs, though it also diverts from the source material, with the other strings pausing to meditate before the quartet digs into Mingus’s theme with gusto.

Hemphill’s experimental yet songful approach connected him to adventurous pop artists; he joined Lake on tour with Björk in support of her album “Debut” in 1993-94. And like Lake, Hemphill was apt to say that his varied pursuits were not evidence of a scattershot sensibility, but rather of a complex, integrated purpose. The liner notes for the new box set include one of his better known statements: “Well, you often hear people nowadays talking about the tradition, tradition, tradition. But they have tunnel vision in this tradition. Because tradition in African-American music is wide as all outdoors.”

Since his death, Hemphill’s influence has continued to make that vista ever wider. His most famous composition, “Dogon A.D.,” with its addictive, loping 11/16 percussion groove, was memorably covered by the pianist Vijay Iyer on his breakout 2009 trio album, “Historicity.” Player-composers like Tim Berne and Marty Ehrlich, who wrote the liner notes for the new release, also swear by Hemphill.

The World Saxophone Quartet in 1978.
Deborah Feingold/Getty Images

So why aren’t his contributions better known? One reason is that his most celebrated album, also called “Dogon A.D.” (1972), has spent long stretches out of print. (It was available on CD for a brief period, in the 2010s, but now that version and the original LP command high prices on the secondhand market.) Another reason likely has to do with the policing of the border between jazz and classical traditions (a subset of the larger issues of racial exclusion in classical music). Most classical programmers are likely unaware of the breadth of Hemphill’s legacy. His music has occasionally been played on predominately classical series like the Composer Portraits at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, but he is usually perceived as a jazz artist, full stop.

But while his music can swing hard, he also explored airier, less propulsive realms. One lengthy track on New World’s disc of chamber music, “Unknown Title No. 1,” documents a 1981 performance by a wind and brass quintet Hemphill conducted.

The unhurried, pungent material heard at the outset is far away from “Dogon A.D.,” “Rhapsody” or the glosses on Mingus. After detours into riotous improvisation, the performance eventually hurtles into a bumptious, tuba-driven conclusion. But its route there is distinctive in the available Hemphill catalog.

Back when Vijay Iyer’s cover of “Dogon A.D.” was earning him plaudits, he described in a profile how seeing Hemphill in concert in 1991 had been a transformative experience. Hemphill’s 1988 album “Big Band” “dazzles me as much today as it did then,” Iyer said in an email, also noting Hemphill and BAG’s important contributions during the “period of Black artists’ self-determination initiatives,” which also included the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago.

Michael Wilderman

Relating the experience of watching a 1992 duo performance by Hemphill and Wadud, later released as the album “Oakland Duets,” Iyer wrote, “I was astonished by the sense of simultaneous mastery and transgression. I think that describes his music in a nutshell.”

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