It's tempting to think of the World Saxophone Quartet as traditional. Yet they have cleverly built a career on pushing the jazz envelope. Not only did they enrich the palette of the sax quartet by doubling on instruments and introducing other ones - such as Murray's devastating bass clarinet - into the staid baritone/tenor/alto/soprano lineup, but the individual founding members of Murray, Bluiett and Lake have all been at the vanguard of contemporary jazz for the past three decades. New recruit John Purcell charted bold new territory in Murray's and Muhal Richard Abrams' Big Bands and the "conductions" of Butch Morris. So if it's new jazz, chances are the WSQ has already played it.
After their critically acclaimed interpretations of Duke Ellington and classic rhythm and blues, after the success of their early'90s collaboration with African drummers (listen to Four Now), it was only natural that the WSQ should like to broaden their horizons even more. This recording features a full-blown rhythm section: Donald Blackman on piano, Calvin Jones on electric and acoustic bass, and power drummer and percussionist Ronnie Burrage, whose collective resumes run the gamut from Sonny Fortune to Geri Allen.
The lithe power and staggering chops of the WSQ remain at the heart of the music heard here. For example, the members of the quartet step in one by one to a Mingus-like vamp on Hamiet Bluiett's "Blues For A Warrior Spirit." After a swaggering solo by Bluiett, the four tear into some hot ensemble blowing. In fact, "Blues" strongly echoes Mingus in that the individual statements forged by the players meld into a unique whole without losing any of their maverick force. This is followed by Murray's "The Desegregation Of Our Children," an achingly beautiful tango that would not sound out of place in the book of Murray's famed Quartet, with eloquent arrangements and a keening lyrical sense. On Murray's first solo he plays as tenderly as the great Ben Webster, then Bluiett weighs in with admirable gravitas. The two men then parry and thrust with their horns, their robust exchanges building the music to a powerful climax.
The newer sounds the extended WSQ discover are just as thrilling. Ronnie Burrage's "Endless Flight" intersperses a straight-ahead, Trane-like workout, with lush, AACM-like pools of free playing, massed horns calling out, invoking a flowing black energy. Oliver Lake's jaunty "Wiring" seesaws between a Monkish head and a Meters-like shuffle, peppered with Blackman's Monkish piano and golden arrangements for sax quartet on top. Lake scores again with "Rio," a gumbo of African and Caribbean rhythms underpinned by a march-like rhythm bed of sparkling piano, a'gogo bells, shékéré and percussion that skirts the boundaries of dub, bringing to mind the pluralistic funk musics of Afrika Bambaataa and Lee Perry.
Indeed, from the purple, Prince-like echoes of the disc's title to the funky grooves turned out on the cuts within, the WSQ are clearly striving for higher ground here, embracing more overt pop influences. Then again, no other jazz group has done as much to popularize the saxophone quartet like the WSQ: following the broad arc of popular music history, they've done the Duke, R&B, even taken their horns to Africa and back. When I want jazz to deliver a housequake, I'll put on the WSQ. As sly as a Yoruba tale by Amos Tutuola, as sleek as an Ellington suite, as funky as a New Orleans front line, these black saints are definitely steppin'.