33. Hornweb

Bordertown. From World Saxophone Quartet, Live in Zurich, 1984

David Murray was already in my radar when the World Saxophone Quartet made their debut. I remember buying Steppin’, from 1979, as soon as I saw it. It did not disappoint. And the sound of the four horns weaving together, sans rhythm section, was a pretty good way to get acquainted with three other adventurous players, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, and Julius Hemphill. There have been other sax quartets that were tremendously enjoyable – The 29th Street Sax quartet, Itchy Fingers – but this outfit are really the prime example. Likewise, there have been other versions of the WSQ, which stayed active until about five years ago, but this line-up is definitive: four brilliant players, similar in outlook, supremely skilled, exploring what they can do together.

Among their early releases, this live set stands out, as live sets often do – not least because it reminds of a visit to London I heard around the same time (can’t remember what they played, but pretty sure it was some of the same material). It also stands out as the recording that says unequivocally that Julius Hemphill is the principal composer.

If this were a conventional horns and rhythm band, it would be the Julius Hemphill quartet. It’s not, and the players all contribute equally to the performance. Still, all the pieces on the LP, save for Bluiett’s signature tune Hattie Wall that tops and tails the set briefly (they would play it processionally, on and off stage), are Hemphill’s, and all are fascinating.

Bordertown is a particularly beautiful example of his writing. It’s not to be confused with the rollicking Bennie Wallace tune – and title track of an excellent album – of the same name. The lovely line is set against high and low horns, Murray lays down his tenor on this piece, leaving the middle register free and creating a lucid, uncluttered arrangement for baritone sax and bass clarinet, and two higher register saxes. It’s more complicated than that – at some points there seem to be two bass clarinets, so Bluiett must be playing one too. But that is the basic set-up and far better to just let the music take you than bother about who is playing what in such a supremely collaborative ensemble.

After the lovely opening statement from bass clarinet and soprano sax, the music moves seamlessly between cleverly varied arrangement and polyphonic improvisation, with lots of searing soprano playing. The whole thing has the air of an unexpected meeting between Ellington and Ornette Coleman where they discover they have a surprising amount in common. Then there’s a cleverly written coda, exploiting the four’s ability to play pacy unison even when the line is complex. I fancy the sound has been cleaned up a bit since the original release: the Spotify stream sounds punchier than I remember from the old LP. Either way, it’s a lasting example of why the WSQ were an unmissable ingredient in compelling new jazz for more than 30 years.

Why the No 33? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify.

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