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World Saxophone Quartet: Steppenwolf

The word virtuoso comes to mind and quickly falls short of the mark in characterizing the ineffable totality of the World Saxophone Quartet. Its latest offering captures the magic of a March 1, 1999, performance at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. John Purcell, on soprano and clarinet, has brought stability and a creative spark to the chair vacated by Julius Hemphill a decade ago; Oliver Lake on alto, David Murray on tenor sax and bass clarinet and Bluiett on baritone remain, and they are in fine form.

The Quartet’s rendering of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” in Murray’s arrangement, asserts its claim to a very high spot in the ranks of collective improvisation. The rapid-fire changes of the work are an ideal platform for four accomplished change-runners, their free-blowing chops notwithstanding. The daunting harmonic framework of this classic shimmers underneath the brilliantly mottled surface of quadrapuntal lines that seem to represent, like Feynman’s electron, all the possibilities of where they might run in a given moment. Purcell’s “L’il Poki,” dedicated to his ancestor Pocahontas, is a striking composition, assigning dramatic roles to each player, and working through the textural potential of the musical conversations implicit in those roles. The rest of the performance is nearly as strong, to the apparent satisfaction of the audience.

Originally Published