World Saxophone Quartet + M'Boom

The World Saxophone Quartet and the five-piece percussion group M’Boom play together at Birdland in midtown Manhattan through Sunday. It’s music to make your head sweat and spin.

WSQ was the most inventive, exciting jazz band of the ’80s—just four saxophone players (Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, alto; David Murray, tenor; Hamiet Bluiett, baritone), sans rhythm section, fusing avant-garde expressiveness and traditional forms with jaw-dropping zest, wit, and beauty.

M’Boom was created by drummer Max Roach in 1970 as a way to explore the untapped possibilities—not just rhythmic but melodic and harmonic—of percussion instruments: congas, marimbas, vibes, drumkits, bongos, bells, all sorts.

The two bands joined forces once before, in 1981, to great acclaim. (I missed that concert, alas.) WSQ still has the same players, except for Hemphill, its main composer and harmonic genius, who left at the end of that decade and died a few years later; a string of saxmen have sat in since, but the current successor, James Carter, is by far the most virtuosic.

M’Boom has changed shape several times over the years. Its lineup this week is stunning: Warren Smith, Ray Mantilla, Eli Fountain, Steve Berrios, and, on vibes, Joe Chambers.

Birdland’s stage may be a bit too small for all the rumblings. Certainly there were times, in Wednesday night’s earcly set, when the horns’ mikes could have used some boosting and Carter could have stood a bit closer to his. This didn’t matter much when he held his soprano horizontal and blew lovely ballads, but some of his fast fingerwork was blurred when he blazed through an up-beat number on alto. Still, this is minor complaint. Overall, everything meshed dazzlingly.

If you can’t make it to Birdland this week, listen to some albums. Many of the WSQ’s classics (Revue, Steppin’, W.S.Q., from the late ’70s and early '80s on Black Saint) are out of print and hard to find; but one of my favorites, World Saxophone Quartet Plays Ellington (1982, on Elektra/Nonesuch), is still available. Murray has led well over 100 albums (Morning Song, Home, Ballads for Bass Clarinet, Shakill’s Warrior II, The Hill, to name a handful). Bluiett is in best sound on his ’90s CDs from Mapleshade, especially Young Warrior, Old Warrior, If Trees Could Speak, and Bluiett’s Barbeque Band. Carter’s best are Chasin’ the Gypsy, Jurassic Classics, and The Real Quietstorm.

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