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World Saxophone Quartet: Experience

The World Saxophone Quartet has devoted whole albums to Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and their late founding member, Julius Hemphill. For their newest release, the group-which now includes Bruce Williams on alto and curved soprano in the slot once occupied by Hemphill, Arthur Blythe and John Purcell-has explored the songbook of a seemingly unusual source: Jimi Hendrix. Considering the guitarist’s connection to classic rock, a Hendrix tribute could be construed as an attempt at instant credibility. But naturally the WSQ approaches the material with their usual reverence and sense of adventure.

Half of the album includes the rhythm section of drummer Gene Lake (son of WSQ alto and soprano saxman Oliver Lake) and bassist Matthew Garrison (son of the late Jimmy Garrison). Their presence adds extra kick to “If 6 Was 9,” which begins in a funky mood before veering off into a wild group improvisation over a boppish bass line. Violinist Billy Bang joins the full band on “Machine Gun,” practically coming out of nowhere and adding an appropriately feverish solo.

“Hey Joe,” and “The Wind Cries Mary” barely resemble the original themes, but both contain rich interplay that touches on spiritual and baroque motifs. Trombonist Craig Harris, who arranged three songs, appears on the latter, reciting the lyrics over a bubbling free section before picking up his horn. He also plays didgeridoo on the somewhat rambling “Hear My Train A-Comin’.”

They avoid the most obvious Hendrix cover, “Purple Haze,” but the WSQ cuts loose on a saxes-only version of “Foxey Lady,” shouting out the title in the appropriate place and engaging in some hair-raising group blowing.

Throughout the album all four members get plenty of spotlight time. Baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and tenor saxophonist David Murray continue to stun anytime they take center stage, but Oliver Lake’s searing alto solos really highlight cuts like “Little Wing,” wherein Williams also proves to be a strong addition to the group.

Once again, the World Saxophone Quartet has taken a bold concept and exceeded expectations.

Originally Published