‘COON BID’NESS (Arista AL 1012)
Julius Hemphill / alto saxophone, Black Arthur Blythe / alto saxophone, Hamiet Bluiett / baritone saxophone, Abdul Wadud / cello, Barry Altschul / drums, Daniel Ben Zebulan / congas.
On Side Two: Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett, Abdul Wadud; and Baikida E.J. Carroll / trumpet; Phillip Wilson / drums.
Recorded: Side One: January 29, 1975; Side Two: February 1972.
Julius Hemphill is a composer and an improviser: a composer in the tradition of Ellington, Mingus, and Ra, and an improviser with deep roots in the blues.
Side one of ‘Coon Bid’Ness (four tracks) works as a single composition. The opening piece, “Reflections,” begins with a slow lament, the three horns and cello creating dark, rich harmonies and utilizing a subtle vibrato to underline the music’s pathos. “Lyric” continues in this vein; then the space begins to open up. Hemphill, it seems, likes to work with several layers of sound, to slowly take them apart – to the point of near dissolution – then to put them back together again (though not necessarily the same as they were before). This is what happens during “Lyric” and also during “Skin 1.” The latter piece especially works its way into some very free space. Then “Skin 2” offers alternate choices as to the side’s resolution; yet there is no real resolution, only lingering afterthoughts.
“Hard Blues” (side two) is an unreleased track from the sessions that produced Dogon A.D., originally released on Julius Hemphill’s label, Mbari, and now re-released by Arista. It’s a funky but somewhat rambling piece, with good solos by Hemphill and Carroll. But, by and large, the music on Dogon is better.
In the U.S., it seems, the Seventies have been more a period of consolidation rather than of innovation (as if the advances of the last decade had to be justified before being built upon). In the process, however, some highly original and beautiful music has been made, bringing together various (and sometimes diverse) stylistic elements. Hard to say exactly where this music will lead, but much of it will easily survive the moment of its own creation and is well worth appreciating. Julius Hemphill’s album offers music of this sort, and it’s recommended.
Henry Kuntz, 1975
selected Julius Hemphill recordings:
Julius Hemphill biography:
Julius Arthur Hemphill (February 24, 1938, Fort Worth, Texas – April 2, 1995, New York City) was a jazz composer and saxophone player. He performed mainly on alto saxophone; less often soprano and tenor saxophones and flute.
Hemphill was born in Fort Worth, Texas (also, incidentally, the hometown of Ornette Coleman), and studied the clarinet before learning saxophone. Gerry Mulligan was an early influence. Hemphill joined the United States Army in 1964, and served for several years, and later performed with Ike Turner for a brief period. In 1968, Hemphill moved to St. Louis, Missouri and co-founded the Black Artists’ Group (BAG), a multidisciplinary arts collective that brought him into contact with artists such as saxophonists Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett, trumpeters Baikida Carroll and Floyd LeFlore, and writer/director Malinke Robert Elliott.
Hemphill moved to New York City in the mid-1970s, and was active in the then-thriving free jazz community. He taught saxophone lessons to a number of notable musicians, including David Sanborn and Tim Berne. Hemphill was probably best known as the founder of the World Saxophone Quartet, a group he formed in 1976, after collaborating with Anthony Braxton in several saxophone-only ensembles. Hemphill left the World Saxophone Quartet in the early 1990s, and formed a saxophone quintet.
Hemphill recorded over twenty albums as a leader, about ten records with the World Saxophone Quartet and also recorded or performed with Björk, Bill Frisell, Anthony Braxton and others. Late in his life, ill-health (including diabetes and heart surgery) forced Hemphill to stop playing saxophone, but he continued writing music until his death. His saxophone sextet, led by Marty Ehrlich, also released several albums of Hemphill’s music, but without Hemphill playing. The most recent is titled The Hard Blues, recorded live in Lisbon after Hemphill’s death.
The best source on Hemphill’s life and music is a multi-hour oral history interview that he conducted for the Smithsonian Institution in March and April 1994, and which is held at the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.