The World Saxophone Quartet’s Requiem for Julius is a tribute to the late Julius Hemphill who was both one of the quartet’s founding members and, up until his departure from the group in 1990, was its main composer. Now, before I get into why Requiem is a fitting tribute to Hemphill, I should state why I would never suggest to someone newly interested in exploring jazz that they should pick up a WSQ recording.
While this group has been together making powerful and important music since the mid-1970s, and includes David Murray as one of its members, the person who many serious jazz listeners point to as being one of the great players of his generation, their music is not introductory material. For starters, one of the cornerstones of jazz music is improvisation. What most people with even a passing knowledge of jazz are used to hearing are the members of a band, anchored by a drum and bass rhythm section, each take turns improvising a solo after they have set out a theme or established a melody, then return the theme or melody at the close of the tune. Not only is there no rhythm section on most of WSQ’s outings, but more significantly, they engage in a significant amount of group improvisation. By doing so, the quartet becomes a four-headed, or four-voiced, soloist. No one leads and no one follows, thus denying a listener the ability to easily focus on a single individual’s musical exploration. Given the quality of the individual voices, the results can be exhilarating, albeit at times abrasive and occasionally cacophonic. While that kind of playing has the power to keep jazz vital by pushing the players and their audience into new territory, it’s emphasis on harmonics over melody does not make it an easy listen.
Another factor that makes this group not recommended for the novice jazz listener is the fact that they are all playing saxophones. While they do play the whole range of saxophones, from soprano to baritone—thus allowing for a good deal of contrast between the instruments—there is a sameness of sound that takes some getting used to. An experienced listener will realize that this type of novel grouping of instruments is consistent with a history in jazz of experimenting with different combinations of instruments in order to find something that sounds new or unexpected. While no one has exhausted the possibilities of the piano trio (piano, drum and bass) for instance, jazz musicians have nevertheless always pushed beyond accepted groupings.
On Requiem for Julius, the WSQ have returned to their beginnings, a time when they strictly played as a quartet. In the past decade they have frequently incorporated other musicians, such as African drummers, into the lineup. Here, it’s nothing but saxes. One of the pleasures of this outing is that the quartet provides us with a taste of their range of material, from quiet introspection to super-intense abstract blowing to groovy intertwining of horns. To me, it comes off as a kind of mature statement of where they have come from and what they are capable of doing. On the opening track, “Ebony,” penned by jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, the group establishes an upbeat riff in unison, then allows individual horns and combinations of horns to stretch out a bit before the whole group is pulled into spirited improvisation. What follows are two very quiet, introspective tracks, “Free and Independent Thought” by WSQ founding member and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, and “All Praise” by John Purcell, who seems to be fitting very nicely into the soprano/alto chair that Julius Hemphill left open when he left the group. “All Praise” in particular reminds the listener that no matter how far jazz may get from its musical roots in blues and gospel, those roots are still alive and well and remain a source of inspiration.
At the centre of this outing is “Hurricane Floyd,” credited to Murray, which is by far the most abstract and challenging composition on Requiem. For the first half of the piece the quartet moves from the quickly stated theme and lets go with a dense interplay of horns. After things quiet down for a bit, the individual players are allowed to space to play, before providing closure through playing out the tune in unison. To me, “Hurricane Floyd” epitomizes what is great about this group because it showcases four fiercely independent players (significantly, throughout its entire duration, the members of the WSQ have all pursued separate careers, usually as leaders of their own bands) who understand that joining their individual voices has the potential to create something greater than the sum of the parts. Difficult, adventurous and at times very moving, Requiem for Julius is a fine tribute to a player who was at once engaged in pushing the boundaries of jazz while remaining true to its starting points, and who always maintained his distinct voice within the framework of ensemble play.