For Duke Ellington, the pinnacle of praise was to describe a musician as "beyond category." The late Texas-born saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, who came up through the worlds of R&B and jazz, merits the full measure of that Ellingtonian encomium.
Best known as the cofounder and principal composer of the World Saxophone Quartet, a group hailed as revolutionary in the 1980s as a stand-alone sax section that offered the jazz equivalent of a classical string quartet, Hemphill (1938-1995) also composed music for jazz bands big and small, scores for dance and theater pieces, and concert pieces for classical instrumentation.
Many of Hemphill's compositions can be heard Thursday night at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, performed by pianist Ursula Oppens, the Daedalus String Quartet, saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, and the Julius Hemphill Sextet. It's the latest installment of the museum's "Composer Portraits" series, presented in collaboration with Columbia University's Miller Theatre.
Hemphill was a coruscating alto saxophonist in the lineage of Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. Yet he always sounded like himself. Even more distinctive was his exquisitely tense and markedly rhythmic writing for closely voiced saxophones, deeply rooted in the blues but evoking everything from bebop to doo-wop to the Darmstadt School.
"This evening lets us present the breadth of Julius's music," says acclaimed saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Ehrlich, an original member of the six-saxophone-strong Julius Hemphill Sextet who has led the group since its founder's death. "The only problem for me as musical director is that there's only so much time in any one concert."
For instance, Ehrlich says, "There's a piece for string quartet called 'Mingus Gold,' which is what I call Julius's 'reimaginings' of three pieces of Charles Mingus - just a virtuosic, dynamic piece. Then we're doing a variety of selections from what I call his large book of music for saxophone choir: things he wrote for the sextet and a few for the World Saxophone Quartet."
Asked about Hemphill's unmistakable writing for saxophones, Ehrlich thinks for a moment. "In some ways," he says, "Julius is the extension of Ellington. There's no question that he was both a master and an innovator in his writing for the saxophone choir. He once said to me, 'Man, I just love the saxophone; I love writing for saxophones.' "
Ehrlich clearly loves the results. "They're a lot of fun to play, I'll tell you that," he says of Hemphill's pieces. "Of all the many dozens of bands I've been in, I've had to bring every skill I have to play his music, because it requires you to be conversant with so much: the entire history of jazz; the entire history of black music in its variety; the ability to play with many classical performance skills. You have to be a very daring and courageous soloist and at the same time it requires some real ensemble discipline. He wanted it all."
Oppens, a celebrated concert pianist, specializes in 20th-century and contemporary music by composers such as Elliot Carter, Conlon Nancarrow, and Frederic Rzewski. But she has also commissioned and performed pieces by composers generally thought of as jazz musicians: George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Anthony Braxton, and Hemphill. "I feel that they're among the most imaginative composers today," she says. "And it's classical music, adventurous classical music. I think there's no division at this point."
Oppens has an additional connection to Hemphill and his music. After performing on the same bill with the World Saxophone Quartet in 1981, she says, "I was . . . overwhelmed. I met Julius then and we became very close."
By 1983, Oppens and Hemphill had moved in together; they remained a couple until his death from complications of diabetes in 1995. "I've never quite had [another relationship] that started so much with music," Oppens says. "I mean, we heard each other's music, and that was that."
Thursday, Oppens will perform two pieces written for her by Hemphill: "One Atmosphere," for piano and string quartet, and "Parchment," for solo piano.
Says Oppens of Hemphill's compositions, "Julius was always a fantastic blues composer, but he also wrote modern music and was mostly at that edge in between the two. And his harmonic language to me is sort of like if you took the most complicated harmonies of Ravel and made them more intense and went in that direction another degree or two."
Saxophonist and composer Russ Gershon, who leads the Boston-based 10-piece Either/Orchestra, is a huge Hemphill fan; his trio, the Intimate Ensemble, will perform a pre-concert show in the Gardner's courtyard as part of the museum's "After Hours" series.
"He was one of the guys after Coltrane and Albert Ayler who reconnected the freedom that was opened up by that music in the '60s with other parts of the jazz vocabulary and other parts of the wider African-American music vocabulary," Gershon says. "I'm thinking of the blues in particular, Hemphill being such a bluesy player and having such a great take on the blues outside of its 12-bar form. In particular, his piece 'The Hard Blues,' which is to me such an American masterpiece, such a music masterpiece."
The main concert will end with "The Hard Blues," which Ehrlich calls the sextet's signature piece. He adds, "We're also doing several pieces that come from [Hemphill's] collaboration with [choreographer] Bill T. Jones . . . the first time he put the six saxophones together. A significant amount of the music that the sextet performs came from that collaboration."
The sole piece on the program not composed by Hemphill will be the premiere of Ehrlich's "Reflections on a Theme by Julius Hemphill," for solo saxophone. "Let me call this my 'reimagining' of a theme of Julius's," Ehrlich says.
Ehrlich has certainly earned the right to put a piece of his own on the program. Says Oppens, "It's because of Marty that the Julius Hemphill Sextet still exists. He's also done a lot of research, and some of the works they play are pieces that had kind of gotten lost and were recovered."
Gershon agrees. "I don't really wear a hat," he says, "but if I had a hat I'd take it off to Marty for keeping this repertoire alive."