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The Hard Blues: Live In Lisbon

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Album Review

When Julius Hemphill passed away, his music was somewhat documented via his few solo recordings and work with the World Saxophone Quartet. As his original compositions were universally revered by peers and fans, they were never properly showcased in one setting until this performance at the Jazz Em Agosto Festival in Lisbon, Portugal. Alto saxophonist Sam Furnace, a longtime member of Hemphill's bands, lost a battle with cancer five months after this set was recorded, so the CD is as much in tribute to him. Life-long friend Marty Ehrlich organized this concert performance, and selected a veritable bevy of Hemphill's finest pieces, played by a sextet of mighty improvisers and strong players. Rising star baritone saxophonist Alex Harding plays in a similar style to icon Hamiet Bluiett, veteran tenor saxophonist and John Coltrane devotee Andrew White, up-and-comer Aaron Stewart, and the very original alto saxophonist Andy Laster join Furnace and Ehrlich (both doubling on soprano) to form a front line perfectly balanced between high and low octave timbres. With no pianist, bassist, or drummer, the sextet makes rhythm their way, wail and moan, pile layer after layer of dynamic sound, and feed off each others penchant to combine sweet and sour tonalities as Hemphill expertly exuded. Of the more well-known works, "Revue" from the W.S.Q. book is a stretched theme with long tones, "Fat Man" is a four-note blues groove jam with dense harmonies, and the title track, Hemphill's most revered piece of all, is a familiar soul strut, faithfully rendered with its triple-time second chorus, free third section, and a singing sound that is undeniable. Also in the W.S.Q. vein, "Otis' Groove" fades in awkwardly up to full volume, but fully owns the tart and molasses thick unison groove, while the outstanding "Touchic" goes from 11/8 to 4/4 time, sporting a repeat ascending and descending vibrancy. A soulful and softer "Three-Step" features the wafting soprano of the always exceptional Ehrlich, while his alto on "Georgia Blue" is infused in a soul ballad, an aspect Hemphill fans might not have experienced. Furnace's alto is smoldering on the best soul waltz "Spiritual Chairs," while "JiJi Tune" in 7/8 showcases a loud and soft, warmer and edgier concept urging White's unique tenor sound. Most fractured, spacious and dank, "Mr. Critical" has no solo, but displays how well these six incredible saxophonists play together. The strut and cry of "Rites" also works well in the team vein especially on the free bridge, while "Opening," another W.S.Q. fave, has a Baroque chamber or fugue feel. A recording as diverse internally as it is familiar externally, this is a fitting tribute to one of the more individualistic mavericks of modern jazz, and is a recording to be paid attention to and revered, as is the playing of Hemphill himself. ~ Michael G. Nastos, Rovi

The Hard Blues: Live In Lisbon, The Julius Hemphill Sextet
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