By Gary Chapin
I’m not going to say Julius Hemphill (1938-1995) is unappreciated (at least by those who matter) or even underappreciated. I will say he is under-recorded. I mean that in the sense that if you ask me if there’s “enough” Julius Hemphill music out there—music by my literally favorite saxophonist/composer of the AACM/BAG new jazz nexus of the 1970s—the answer will be an unironic “no.” This boxed set of seven discs releasing 35 curated tracks found in Hemphill’s archives fills a real need, and, not coincidentally, improves my quality of life.
The Boyé Multi-National Crusade For Harmony was the name Hemphill gave to a variety of his touring bands. Disc one shows us a few of those on the road. Two horns, cello and drums. Hemphill, Olu Dara on Trumpet, Abdul Wadud on Cello, Warren Smith on drums. Then Bakida Carroll—Hemphill’s “right hand man”—takes the trumpet spot, Philip Wilson on drums, and Jehri Riley playing guitar instead of Wadud’s cello. Finally, you bring in John Carter on clarinet, Alex Cline on drums, and Roberto Miranda on bass. So many familiar pieces of the Hemphill puzzle showing up right at the beginning.
All 35 tracks in the box are Hemphill compositions, making a point that didn’t maybe need to be made. 25 of them have never been heard on record before. Like other greats of this music, Hemphill’s genius included finding partners who could see the connection between interpretation and great improvisational voice. Both Bakida Carroll and Olu Dara, just for two examples are essential voices in Hemphill’s work. No one else could add to the pieces in the way that they did.
Disc two presents us with the Hemphill/Wadud duo, one of the all time great partnerships in music. Wadud is all over this set, but when it’s just the two of them, starting at the tunes, but getting broad very quickly, something unique happens. Wadud wasn’t the first cellist in improvised music, but his example is still sine qua non. These six tracks are from who knows where and who knows when. For tapes found among some papers, the sound quality is excellent.
Disc three gives us another Hemphill ensemble—a trio with Bakida Carroll and Alex Cline—with Wadud joining on two tracks. Long collective improvisations fill this time, with a few compositions also. One of those is the much beloved “Dogon A.D.” It’s the grooving-est piece in eleven you will ever hear and it changed the landscape when first heard. This performance is wilder (and shorter) than the Arista/Freedom record that shook the world in 1972. There can never be enough Dogon A.D.
Disc four is titled “Chamber Music,” and features other ensembles playing Hemphill music under the composer’s direction (conduction). Interesting here are three envisionings of Mingus tunes (including “Better Get Hit in Your Soul”) by the Daedalus String Quartet, and a solo piano piece played by Hemphill’s life-partner Ursula Oppens. This came as such a surprise in its gentleness among all the horns in the box. It’s as if Hemphill took all the lessons of impressionism and translated them through the lens of mid-20th century black St. Louis. I stopped and listened a few times.
Disc five is Hemphill in duo with two poets. First K. Curtis Lyle, and then Malinké Elliott. Both poets are excellent and compelling and work wonderfully in conversation with Hemphill. I am reminded of Joseph Jarman’s poetry. Lyle is quoted in Marty Ehrlich’s extraordinary liner notes, “Julius and I had long literary conversations. Ellison, Baldwin, the Harlem Renaissance. He was the first musician I talked with in this way. He in turn taught me how to use rhythm and cadence to make room for interaction. He taught me to read these poems from a musical point of view, to open up the space.”
Disc six returns to the changing ensembles of the Boyé Multi-National Crusade For Harmony. Nel Cline and Jerome Harris show up, among the stalwarts playing Hemphill’s small group book. Disc seven is perhaps the most extraordinary of all, a home recording done on cassette by Bakida Carroll, recorded at Woodstock, NY, where Hemphill and Carroll lived at the time, along with two of their neighbors, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. Four tracks at just about 45 minutes, but it was, as Ehrlich says, “an on night.”
Get this boxed set at New World Records.