Sunday, August 15, 2010
What a record.
This was released by Arista/Freedom along with Oliver Lake's "Heavy Spirits" to a little bit of fanfare in the wake of their Braxton issues. I remember downbeat did a spread on them and mislabeled Hemphill's and Lake's photos, so for a while I pictured one as the other.
But..."'Coon Bid'ness". Has there ever been a greater, rawer, more in-your-face album title? from 1975, no less. I'm surprised it hasn't been expropriated by a rap group yet (maybe it has!) "'Coon magic!/'Coon Rhythm!/Buck dancing!" (from the Hemphill poem, "Reflections" on the back cover). When reissued, they lily-liveredly retitled it "Reflections".
Side 1, four tracks recorded in 1975, a sextet with Hemphill, Blythe, Bluiett, Wadud, Altschul and Daniel Ben Zebulon on congas (googled him--apparently been working with Richie Havens in recent years) all sinuous and riveting, punctuated by staccato blasts, funky and strutting while remaining abstract and difficult to fully grasp. They're all wonderful pieces but then you flip over the vinyl and arrive at...
"The Hard Blues". If there's a single piece of music that, for me, epitomizes the highest achievements of the post-Coltrane jazz avant-garde, it may well be this. Done in 1972, in St. Louis, with Hemphill, Baikida E. J. Carroll, Bluiett, Wadud and Philip Wilson. Back in Environ days, we referred to Philip as the "wettest" drummer out there (as opposed to overly dry ones like, often, Altschul, in fact) and he was never wetter than here. He and Wadud attain such a sublime, slow groove, right from the start, pure gold. Then the horns, sounding like far more than three, just strut and sing and bleed. That beautiful theme, so proud and sad. Hemphill solos first, marvelous enough, but Carroll simply kills, out-Bowie-ing Bowie, so plangent, so piercing. The horns mass again toward the end, anchored fathoms deep by Bluiett, and take it out with more of those machine gun strikes.
One of my absolute favorite jazz albums, ever.
Rarely see much mention on this one. Recorded in May, 1976 at La Mama. Must have been right near the time of my first visit to a NYC "loft" jazz concert which was also that month (have I written about that? Roscoe, Oliver Lake, Philip Wilson?). In any case, this is a good, fairly free duo (the four pieces actually written by Hemphill but played quite loosely). Wadud almost always had a melodic center to his playing and it serves as a nice anchor for the tendrils spun out by Hemphill, on alto throughout. Whatever happened to Wadud? Wiki yields no answers, though his son, Raheem DeVaughn, is apparently a fairly well known r&b singer. Some lovely playing by Wadud on the side-long "Echo 2 (Evening)". That entire cut is a good example of Hemphill at his lyrical best; really no one around then who sounded like him.
Lake and Hemphill always were intertwined for me, from that first downbeat article to the WSQ. I think WSQ was already in existence by this recording date, March, 1978, though I don't think the first record was out. I have a postcard somewhere, from 1977, announcing the debut of the "New York Saxophone Quartet", the original name of the group before they found out some other folk from the classical world were already using it. I guess a few people had done sax duo records already--I'm sure the Braxton/Mitchell one?--but for some reason this stands out as my initial exposure to the form. In the wake of things like "'Coon Bid'ness", and Lake's "Heavy Spirits" (as well as other releases from BAG members) I think, at the time, I was looking for more structure, more overt references to blues and found this a little too loose and meandering, but I must say it sounds pretty nice today, the pair twining quite tastily, with more than enough grit and non-overt blues nods to salt things nicely. Just goes to show.
Certainly, one of the great album covers of the 70s. Good record as well, a trio with Wadud and Famoudou Don Moye, relatively straight ahead and lyrical. "G Song", which closes the albums, is one of the loveliest country/funk/jazz tunes I know, Wadud just singing on cello.
Sort of a mini-concept album I guess an ok one, a quartet with Olu Dara, Wadud and Warren Smith, performing four pieces, Ear, Mind, Heart and Body that grow from quiet and lyrical (Hemphill on flute) to hard and funky. Still, there's something routine about it. It's 1980 and already you can hear some retrenching, some lack of resolve. It's sounding tired by this point, the funk on the last cut entirely unconvincing. Something of a portent, unfortunately.
Could this be the worst album cover in history? Could anything better symbolize the shallowness of the decade in the US, both in subject and in technique? Man, is that bad. Claus Peter Bauerle, that's the culprit. And the music isn't all that much better. The ensemble includes the then nubile Cline brothers, Jumma Santos (he who played with Hendrix at Woodstock) and, as if not knowing when to stop in spreading the awfulness, a bassist who goes by the single name, Steubig. Steubig. Just, Steubig. I have not the words. (Apparently, the nom de musique of one Steuart Liebig). Oh, and then they do needlessly rockish and bland renditions of both "The Hard Blues" and "Dogon AD" (I never saw the Dogon LP around; I remember looking for it but to no avail, dammit). I recall being quite excited seeing that they were both present here. Feh.
My last vinyl Hemphill, from 1988. Got his own disc, presumably via the WSQ involvement with Nonesuch, a 16-piece big band and, not surprisingly, the results are ungainly. Successful post-AACM big bands are few and far between in my estimation, the arrangements often muddy, rarely able to really take off on any kind of sustained, collective rhythmic drive. There are exceptions I guess (I mean in the sense, like this one, of being more or less in the Ellington tradition) but I always came at projects like this with a skeptical ear (mid-sized groups, say 8 - 10 members, fared far better, imho). The long track, "Drunk on God", with the words and voice of K. Curtis Lyle, works fairly well, recalling a beefed up version of Marion Brown's early 70s music with Bill Hassan. `
Followed Hemphill for a while into the 90s, as his health deteriorated. I remember when he had one of his lower legs amputated (diabetes, I think?) and Arthur Blythe used to substitute for him with the WSQ on occasion. Died far too young.
Thanks for some incredible music, Mr, Hemphill. 'Coon Bid'ness indeed!