|Since its inception in 1976, the World Saxophone Quartet - in all of its various permutations - has reached some of its highest peaks when paying tribute to departed master musicians. Whether reflecting on Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Eddie Jefferson or Miles Davis, the WSQ has found a way to channel the music of its diverse influences through its own four distinctive voices.
For the first dozen years of its existence, one of those voices belonged to co-founder Julius Hemphill, the Texas native who died of diabetes complications in 1995. Hemphill's career was marked by his evolution from mainstream R&B (one of his early bandleaders was Ike Turner) to the hybrid of rhythm, improvisation and open-ended structure that he, Hamiet Bluiett and Oliver Lake pursued in St. Louis as charter members of the Black Artists Group and, later, into the WSQ. David Murray's heartfelt title song encapsulates the breadth of its subject's musical journey, with Bluiett's full, round baritone walking resolutely through a repeated six-note theme as the other horns swoop and swirl around him.
It is, of course, this ability to balance the freedom from traditional rhythmic devices with the members' own innate sense of rhythm and movement, lyricism and harmonic freedom on which the WSQ built its reputation. In recent times, the quartet has augmented its four horns with African percussion, organ, voice and even a piano-bass-and-drums rhythm section. Requiem For Julius finds them back to basics, with Bluiett defining the bottom with his intricate and often-unexpected bass riffs, and all the horns twisting and turning into various combinations or solo flights.
Indeed, several of the pieces here - most notably Lake's "Potato Vamp" carry the band back to its earliest days, when it recorded shortish pieces rich in interplay and so intricately arranged that it was often impossible to discern where the writing stopped and the extemporization began. On "Potato Vamp" the four voices intertwine tightly around Lake's circular motif, sounding like an exceptionally hip chamber group.
The use of vamps has been another defining characteristic, and there is a second effective instance of the device on Jack DeJohnette's hard-driving "Ebony." With Bluiett dominating the lower register, the horns blur together as a single harmonic mass, until one-by-one they break free 1o soar over the insistent theme.
The combination of the principal and secondary horns of the quartet in interesting and unusual ways is a given with the WSQ. On Bluiett's "Free And Independent Thought" the horns move with grace toward the final baritone incantation, and on the second movement of Lake's "Sport Suite" they unite to perform a jaunty theme, before splitting into an alto/tenor duet.
Purcell's contribution, "All Praise," serves to remind that the WSO has always had strong gospel roots, too. His somber and meditative composition has more than a hint of Ellington and Strayhorn in its harmonies, and the composer's uplifting flight on saxello is one of the recording's highlights.
The centerpiece of Requiem -Murray's "Hurricane Floyd" - presents the remaining dominant WSO characteristic: the raw power of tour horns. From the drop, it's clear that 'Floyd" is no tropical storm; it hits full force and sustains its fury for almost five minutes. Anything left standing in the studio must have been nailed down. From there, the listener is into the eye of the beast, with the players making individual statements, topped off by Murray's expressive bass clarinet solo. The storm re-emerges for one final gust before resolving with the piece's theme.
In the end, Requiem is more than a simple remembrance of a former comrade-in-arms; it is a restatement of all that has made a band remarkable for almost 25 years.