I'm wary of the repertory movement in jazz. Ghost bands who linger on decades after their founding figure has passed, institutional jazz orchestras who dutifully recreate the music of Ellington and Strayhorn, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, et al., for a concert-hall audience... all of this seems ultimately self-defeating. It continually reinforces the idea that jazz is something that happened a long time ago, and that the proper role for younger musicians is not to stand on the shoulders of giants, but to lurk in their shadows. And with the audience for orchestras that bind themselves to that kind of subscription-warhorse-nostalgia model dwindling every year, it's a bit hard to see why anyone in the jazz world thought this would be a good model to emulate.
This isn't to say that past masters shouldn't get their due -- of course they should. This is especially important for artists whose contributions have been largely -- and deliberately -- excluded from the jazz canon. As I think that already-famous hivemind-spawned 1973-1990 discography demonstrates, there are an awful lot of unsung heroes in jazz. But even in that pack of underdogs, Julius Hemphill stands out.
So despite my reservations about "museum jazz," it was heartening to see Miller Theatre include Hemphill in this year's Composer Portraits series. (The season opener featured John Zorn; concerts yet to come will spotlight the music of Varèse, Zappa, Reich, and Kimmo Hakola.) But I also wondered whether Thursday's performance would be true to Hemphill's maverick spirit, or whether it would collapse under the weight of too much well-intentioned reverence.
Those who know Hemphill's work usually know him via his association with the World Saxophone Quartet, so it's easy to forget that he also has a formidable body of concert music written for nonjazz performers, much of it as-yet unrecorded. Thanks to a transit snafu, I missed the concert's opening, but I was very glad to arrive in time to catch Ursula Oppens and Ethel perform Hemphill's One Atmosphere, premiered fifteen years ago but only recorded in 2004. It opens with a languid two-chord figure which unfolds into a walking bass line thickened by a parallel harmonization. The steady pulse holds through some sharp piano accents, but then gives way into an active 5-part dialog. This is a side of Hemphill's writing I'd never heard, and Oppens (who has long championed Hemphill's music) and Ethel made a very strong case for it. It also made for a very interesting and unexpected jumping-on point -- maybe that subway delay was fortuitous.
Next, concert organizer and Hemphill associate Marty Ehrlich took the stage, accompanied by cellist Erik Friedlander, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and... holy shit, is that Baikida Carroll? It is Baikida Carroll -- this is the guy who played trumpet on Hemphill's legendary 1972 debut Dogon A.D. (never issued on CD, though not for lack of trying), as well as the followup, Coon Bid'ness (which is on CD, and even iTunes, albeit with the less, uh, "provocative" title "Reflections"). These two records were my first exposure to Hemphill's music and remain my all-time favorites, so it's impossible to put into words how thrilling it was to hear Pheeroan launch into the supple 11/16* drum groove that anchors "Dogon A.D." akLaff and Friedlander are the ideal rhythm section for this music -- akLaff was relaxed and funky, totally uninhibited by the odd-meter phrasing, and Friedlander was right there in the pocket, extending and elaborating on the cello vamp originally played by Abdul Wadud, while staying true to the tune's grinding, obsessive focus. (You can tell Friedlander has listened to this record hundreds of times.) Carroll's solo was patient and spacious, while Erhlich opened with boppish spurts and built to a fearsome climax. It's a little scary how fresh it all sounds, still.
This quartet returned in the second half to play the two other cuts from Dogon A.D. First was "The Painter," with its beautiful, conversational flute lines and folkish cello strumming. This rendition featured a long interactive dialogue between Erhlich and Carroll, with almost telepathically supportive accompaniment from akLaff and Friedlander. "Rites" is a sharp contrast to "The Painter," opening with abrasive siren-like horn wails interrupted by fiercely angular, virtuosic lines. The improv is a kind of fast, loose rubato, full of flurries and slicing attacks, but everyone seemed attuned to the natural ebb and flow and kept the music moving. Just before the head out, Pheeroan unleashed a steamroller of a drum solo, one of the most intense moments of the night.
Ursula Oppens and Ethel were both back after the break as well, in separate performances. Oppens played "Parchment," a piece Hemphill wrote with her in mind. It's a reflective, post-impressionistic work in much the same vein as many of the pieces I heard the night before. Hemphill's expert balancing of chromaticism vs. diatonicism, and of density vs. spaciousness seemed almost effortless. And who doesn't love Ursula Oppens's playing? Damn.
Ethel returned with Mingus Gold, a "contemplation" for string quartet of three Mingus tunes -- "Nostalgia in Times Square," "Alice's Wonderland," and "Better Get Hit in Your Soul." "Nostlagia" began straightforwardly before veering into Hemphill's spiky harmonic vocabulary; "Alice's Wonderland" entrusted the yearning melody first to the viola, then to pizzicato cello, closing with a staggering waltz. Cellist Dorothy Lawson opened "Better Get Hit In Your Soul" with her best crack at Mingusian grittiness. The most successful parts of Mingus Gold were the most thoroughly reimagined ones -- the arrangements tended to bog down whenever the adaptation got too literal. But Ethel played this music with intensity and commitment -- their sincere passion for both Hemphill and Mingus was unmistakable.
The hit was anchored by the Julius Hemphill Sextet, a group founded in 1987 and rebooted after Hemphill's untimely death by Marty Ehrlich, an original member of the sextet. Also on board were Matana Roberts and Andy Laster (altos), J.D. Parran and Andrew White (tenors), and Alex Harding (bari). The group has a massive collective sound, full-throated but intensely focused, with Ehrlich's bittersweet tone singing out on top, rendering Hemphill's unmistakable melodic lines with graceful abandon. They brought a glimmering clarity to Hemphill's densely-packed harmonic blocks on "Mirrors" and "JiJi Tune," and a surging energy to "The Moat and the Bridge," a McCoy-ish modal workout refracted through Hemphill's own idiosyncratic sensibilities.
The sextet closed the night with a couple of soulful 12/8 romps. If "Spiritual Chairs" is a blistering gospel sermon, then "The Hard Blues" -- originally cut at the same session that produced Dogon A.D. -- is the front end of a three-day bender, It pits Alex Harding's menacing bari ostinato against clipped staccatos, searing long tones, and swaggering triplet lines, before exploding into a frenetic-but-tight freebop bridge. "The Hard Blues" is anthemic and irresistible -- in fact, it ended with a parade through the hall, with Ethel, Ursula, and Pheeroan joining the line for the final blowout. (Tim Berne, another of Hemphill's most tireless advocates, was in the audience -- I was hoping he might make a cameo appearance on this tune, but it was not to be.)
This is jazz rep I can get behind -- a long-overdue celebration of a neglected master, featuring heartfelt performances by musicians who have a deep personal connection to the artist. This was the rare posthumous tribute that didn't feel like dancing with zombies; it felt like dancing with spirits.
* While I'm told Hemphill actually notated the tune in 11/16, if you were transcribing it, you'd probably put it in 11/8.
Tickets to this event were provided by the concert promoter.
Photos below the fold...