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'Crusade For Harmony' Surveys The Life Work Of Saxophonist Julius Hemphill

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, who died in 1995, was born in Fort Worth, developed his music in St. Louis, then moved to New York, where he was a founding member and principal composer for the World Saxophone Quartet. Later, Julius Hemphill had his own saxophone sextet, but along the way, he led and wrote for a variety of bands. A new box set surveys his life's work. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS HEMPHILL, BAIKIDA CARROLL, DAVE HOLLAND AND JACK DEJOHNETTE'S "WOULD BOOGIE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Julius Hemphill on alto saxophone in 1979, mixing the abstract and the earthy with Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Dave Holland on bass and drummer Jack DeJohnette walloping that backbeat. It's from the seven-CD Hemphill box "The Boye Multi-National Crusade For Harmony," eight hours of newly released 1970s and '80s music from the composer's archives, curated and annotated by Hemphill scholar and sometimes sideman Marty Ehrlich.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS HEMPHILL, BAIKIDA CARROLL, JEHRI RILEY AND PHILLIP WILSON'S "AIR RINGS")

WHITEHEAD: This new Julius Hemphill anthology, comprised of live, studio and rehearsal recordings, touches on many aspects of his wide-ranging work, but not all of them. There's nothing for saxophone ensembles, a key part of his legacy.

There is music for a variety of small bands - solo sax over prerecorded junkyard percussion, a little chamber music and a few duos, including a couple with poets.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS HEMPHILL'S "SOWETO 1976: A SUITE IN FIVE VOICES, PART III: THE HIPSTER")

MALINKE ELLIOTT: All right, all right, all right. You do the listening in the sun, and I'll try to tell you in the sun. Then you can go home, and you can forget it. You can just forget it.

WHITEHEAD: A tiny snippet of poet Malinke Elliott.

The Julius Hemphill box also includes plenty of spirited improvising tinged with the blues. Hemphill's scalding alto sax is often entwined with the trumpet of Baikida Carroll, an ally since their early days in St. Louis. One of the real finds here is a 1977 studio session where they're joined by drummer Alex Cline and the trio Janus Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANUS COMPANY'S "#4")

WHITEHEAD: In the new jazz of the 1970s and surrounding decades, a certain raggedy quality came with the territory, and there were a few places in the Julius Hemphill box where ensemble passages can sound a little out of tune. Still, rough edges have their place. They can give the music the air of early jazz bands, where everyone might play the melody a little differently.

That raggediness (ph) can make a small band sound bigger, like a three-horn quintet with Baikida on trumpet and the great clarinetist John Carter, who directed Hemphill's junior high school band back in Fort Worth. This is "Dimples: The Fat Lady On Parade."

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS HEMPHILL, BAIKIDA CARROLL, JOHN CARTER, ALEX CLINE AND ROBERTO MIRANDA'S "DIMPLES: THE FAT LADY ON PARADE")

WHITEHEAD: Julius Hemphill's other essential ally in numerous bands was Abdul Wadud. More than anyone, Wadud popularized the cello in improvised music. He might treat it like a baby bass or strum it like a slippery rhythm guitar.

The new Hemphill anthology includes an hour of new music from their duo with Julius sometimes on soprano sax.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDUL WADUD AND JULIUS HEMPHILL'S "DOWNSTAIRS")

WHITEHEAD: Julius Hemphill kept Abdul Wadud's cello style in mind when he arranged three Charles Mingus compositions for string quartet in the 1980s. Cello on the bottom strums chords in stop-time on Mingus' "Better Get Hit In Your Soul."

(SOUNDBITE OF DAEDALUS STRING QUARTET'S "MINGUS GOLD: BETTER GET HIT IN YOUR SOUL")

WHITEHEAD: Sprawling, a little uneven and with variable sound quality, "The Boye Multi-National Crusade For Harmony" might not be an ideal introduction to Julius Hemphill's music, except that a few of his classics like "Dogon A.D." and "Coon Bid'ness" are out of print. Happily, New World Records has made each disc from the box available as a separate download. I'd recommend Volumes 2, 3 and 7 as places to start, roping in the duo with Abdul Wadud, the trio Janus Company and the quartet with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. Julius Hemphill was one of the key jazz composers of the late 20th century, a modernist with deep roots. His music should be part of any informed listener's jazz education.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS HEMPHILL, BAIKIDA CARROLL, DAVE HOLLAND AND JACK DEJOHNETTE'S "DUNG")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed the "Boye National Crusade For Harmony" (ph), the new seven-CD box set of the music of Julius Hemphill.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Disney animated film "Raya And The Last Dragon." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.