Julius Hemphill at the Gardner, Cyrus Plays Elvis
By JON GARELICK  |  October 23, 2007

HARD BLUES The Hemphill concert rocked the Gardner’s Tapestry Room.

WFNX Jazz Brunch top 5 for the week of October 21

1. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Red Earth: A Malian Journey [Emarcy]
2. Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters [Verve]
3. John Scofield, This Meets That [Emarcy]
4. Miles Davis, The Complete On the Corner Sessions [Sony Legacy]
5. Manu Katché Playground [ECM]

For much of his life, no one played Thelonious Monk pieces except Thelonious Monk. Even now, Monk isn’t as pervasive as you might think. So how does the music of a visionary composer like Julius Hemphill survive, if not become standard repertoire?

One answer was evident at the Gardner Museum a week ago Thursday night. Hemphill died in 1995, but his long-time companion, the esteemed pianist and new-music specialist Ursula Oppens, was on hand along with one of Hemphill’s frequent collaborators, Marty Ehrlich, as well as the Julius Hemphill Sextet and the Daedalus String Quartet. For a good two hours they had the Tapestry Room rocking for a sold-out audience that included veteran jazz fans as well as neophytes. It’s doubtful anyone left the hall who isn’t looking forward to hearing more Hemphill.

Hemphill was born in Forth Worth, a cousin of Ornette Coleman, and he exemplied the region’s raw, rootsy, blues-drenched sound. His alto playing had Bird-like fluidity, but — born in 1940 — he had a strong taste for doo-wop and R&B as well as Mingus-like structures full of twining contrapuntal lines and collective improv, and grounded in funk rhythms. His work gained its greatest prominence when he was one of the key players/composers for the World Saxophone Quartet — a “hit” avant-garde group of the ’80s that still carries on.

Through-composed pieces played by the Daedalus and Oppens bridged the two halves of the wisely devised program at the Gardner, with the Sextet — created by Hemphill and continued by original member Ehrlich — opening and closing the night. This was a hefty group: legendary players Andrew White and J.D. Parran along with Ehrlich and the younger Alex Harding, Andy Laster, and Matana Roberts.

The first number, “Fat Man,” was typical — a character portrait (written for Hemphill’s opera, Long Tongues) that stated a long-lined, winding theme with a rising dynamic before settling into a rocking ostinato from White’s tenor and Harding’s baritone. The theme split off into free-flowing counterlines, and back into supporting riffs for soprano and alto solos. “Opening,” written for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company, was a stately curtain raiser, with call-and-response figures and tart sustained, dissonant harmonies. “Mirrors” was a feature for Parran’s soprano — his a cappella passages varied beautifully calibrated vibrato and split tones with silky fast runs as the band answered him with chorus figures or gaggled like ducks. I had begun to think that those sustained melancholy ensemble dissonances were becoming too much of good thing, but then in “JiJi Tune” the high horns suddenly took off from the rocking bottom, soaring over the top with a jaunty beboppish theme that might have been some latter-day imagining of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band.

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