Yes, the World Saxophone Quartet Can
WSQ, which was formed in 1977, still has at its core two of the founding members, David Murray on tenor sax and Hamiett Bluiett on baritone. The alto parts, which have shifted over the decades, are taken up here by Kidd Jordan and James Carter (the latter also on soprano at times). They’re all playing at peak power.
In its original guise, with Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake on altos, WSQ was the signature jazz band of the 1980s, the spearhead of a spontaneous “neo-classical” movement (as critic Gary Giddins dubbed it), which combined the avant-garde’s passionate expressionism with the wit, grace and beauty of myriad traditional forms.
Much of this movement was captured on the Italian Black Saint label, as were the quartet’s seminal albums (especially Revue, W.S.Q., and Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music), though their most voluptuous work, the 1986 Plays Ellington, appeared on Nonesuch.
Hemphill, a master of stretched harmony, was the band’s driving force, and his departure a few years later, due to illness (he died in 1995 at the age of 57), left a painful gap. The band darted off in different directions, sometimes as the frontline of much larger groups, and many of their albums came off stiff and uncertain. (Notable exceptions include Requiem for Julius in 2000 and Breath of Life, which featured singer Fontella Bass, in 1994.)
Yes We Can, which was recorded live in Berlin two years ago, is the first album since Hemphill’s death that exudes the spirit and virtuositythe controlled frenzyof the original era. It starts with “Hattie Wall,” a Bluiett head-shaker that the WSQ has long used as a concert opener and closer, but I’ve never heard a zestier, more ecstatic version than this, either on record or live (I’ve seen the group in concert at least a dozen times, including in its heyday).
The highlight, though, is the title song, written by Murray, as an anthem to Barack Obama, and it’s a stirring, swaying, irresistibly gorgeous piece of music. Someone should program an evening of jazz at the White House and hire WSQ to play it.
This is getting to be an old band. Bluiett was nearing 70, Jordan 75, when the album was recorded; Murray was 54; even the group’s wunderkind, Carter, had turned 40 (and playing with much more discipline than he’d shown of late). But there’s hardly any group out there that sounds younger.
The album is out on the German label Jazzwerkstatt. I bought it at Ray’s Jazz, on the third floor of Foyles (a terrific record store inside one of the world’s greatest bookshops), while on vacation in London a couple months ago. Just this past week, Naxos has started distributing the label in the U.S.
Sound quality is not up to the group’s best studio work, but it’s good enough for dancing in your head.