It’s not easy playing music that strays beyond the tonal: the crazy stuff, the honks and the squeals of the avant-garde. For some folks, all jazz sounds that crazy. For some jazz fans, there’s no such thing as noise—every note, every grunt or shout can be music.
The World Saxophone Quartet is one of the few “out” jazz groups that developed a mainstream audience yet never really sold out. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the band held down a major-label recording contract for Elektra/Nonesuch, recording Ellington and rhythm ‘n’ blues tunes, sure, but also remaining as weird and edgy as just about any “free jazz” ensemble.
The quartet formed in 1976, and it has stuck to its guns: mostly playing original and wildly improvised music without a rhythm section to hem the band in. The founders—baritone player Hamiett Bluett, David Murray on tenor, and Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake on alto saxophones—were all composers, and not one of them wrote or played in a conventional bebop style. The band always had a visceral appeal among a wide array of audiences. Sure, they squeak and squall like free players, but they also know that a thumping bass line and a carefully deployed lush harmony can go a long way toward making an atonal solo sound compelling.
Recent years have seen the World Saxophone Quartet record less frequently, with replacements for Hemphill coming and going since 1989. The discography has, for a while, been littered with tributes discs or collaborations with drummers, bass players and the like. This has not cheapened their music, but if you had ever heard the band play in their old style, with just four saxophones honking away gloriously, then you probably liked them best playing that old-school way—four cats on a stage, blowing free.
Yes We Can fits that bill nicely.Recorded in 2009 at a festival in Berlin, Germany, it is the group as most of us would like to remember them. Bluett and Murray are on hand, contributing six original tunes and holding down the bottom. New Orleans legend Kidd Jordan, who famously brought the group together forever ago, guests and provides one more tune. The band’s newest member, wunderkind turned veteran James Carter, simply plays the crap out of things at every turn.
Despite the old-new blood, this sounds like a classic WSQ album in very respect. The proceedings start and end with their calling card, Bluett’s super-funky “Hattie Wall”, which builds from a stone-solid baritone line that is as gritty as anything from James Brown. This has always been a fun announcement of intent, a grooving thump that seems like an excuse to blow in wild swirls, which then moves through a series of careful harmonic shifts without stifling the horns’ ability to cut loose.
The title track, one of Murray’s tunes, is also built on an attractive low part for Bluett. This tune, however, has a relatively traditional set of harmonic changes and a keening melody—a plaintive and slightly sad line that suggests that the joy of Obama’s election is less than mere ecstasy for Murray. Nevertheless, this is one of the lovely moments in the concert, a window into the quartet’s ability to channel sweet big-band stylings. Murray’s “The God of Pain” is a ballad that also lets the band play as a beautifully harmonized chorus, with the composer’s solo ranging from tender to anguished and climaxing in a solo cadenza that compares well to a classic Sonny Rollins ending. “The Angel of Pain” uses a series of contrasting composed themes, which collide and criss-cross until all four players are playing a collective impromptu.
More typical is Jordan’s “The River Niger”, which starts as a pure collective improvisation with momentary flashes of collective thinking. The melody emerges eventually as a repeated riff, giving the band a logical launching place for solos. Carter sounds bracing and bold on soprano sax here, playing with great confidence. “The Long March to Freedom” is both somber and ragged, with solo sections cut loose from tonality and then connected by sections of graceful harmony. Bluett’s “The Guessing Game” features Murray’s bass clarinet and the composer’s B-flat clarinet and lends some pastel lope to the concert.
The World Saxophone Quartet is not merely the granddaddy to all unaccompanied saxophone groups in jazz. It is one of the true survivors among all jazz groups, and certainly among groups that work on the avant-garde wing of the music. Their shows, and their career, are not boring, because they keep the balance between composition and improvisation just so, even while the solos they do take tend to fly beyond tonality almost every time. Yes We Can is proof that the band remains utterly solid, even with two players who are essentially new to things.
It’s an endorsement not merely of the group, but also of the idea of the group that this concert seems like the quartet at its very best. Here is the World Saxophone Quartet again, embracing old verities but sounding fresh because in fact there is new blood in the veins. James Carter sounds perfect, and David Murray is certainly still at the height of his powers. If you know the band, then Yes We Can is a record of why it will never be forgotten even as the years wear on. If the World Saxophone Quartet is new to you, then this is a daring place to start. The playing can be raucous, but it can also be precise and lovely.
These horns bark, but they don’t bite. Maybe it’s time you got out there and ran with the big dogs?