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Julius Hemphill Sextet: The Hard Blues

One thought kept going through my mind as I listened to The Hard Blues: Not much good came out of Julius Hemphill leaving the World Saxophone Quartet. Sure, the WSQ went on to record a bunch more albums with his replacements, and Hemphill himself formed a nice sax sextet to play his own compositions. But the WSQ never recorded another truly great album after Hemphill left, and Hemphill’s sextet-as good as it was-was never quite on a level with the WSQ.

Now Hemphill is gone, but his sextet continues under the leadership of altoist/sopranoist Marty Ehrlich. On The Hard Blues he is joined by Andy Laster (alto), the late Sam Furnace (alto/soprano), Aaron Stewart (tenor), Andrew White (tenor) and Alex Harding (bari). But is the band’s continued existence a good thing? Well, it’s not a bad thing, but it’s definitely not the same thing. Just as the Hemphill-led sextet paled somewhat in comparison to the WSQ, so does this Ehrlich-led group suffer when held up to its immediate predecessor.

The Hard Blues proves just how important Hemphill’s physical presence was to the realization of his music. Compositions like the avant-swinger “Band Theme” and the soul-based title track are outright catchy and supremely inventive. Hempill’s tunes are never a few riffs stuffed into an AABA form; they are full-fledged compositions that explore a wider range of formal ideas than is usual among small-group composers. The band plays the heck out of them. The ensembles are taut, sassy and swinging, and the solo work is excellent (White in particular kills on “Band Theme”). But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it all sounds just a little mannered. Missing is the spark of Hemphill’s outsized personality.

Originally Published