Julius Hemphill Sextet

At Dr. King's Table

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Julius Hemphill was one of the most original jazz improvisers of his day. He was also blessed with the singular ability to harness his improvisational vision to his composition, thus also making him one of the music's most original composers. Hemphill found his voice by writing for groups of saxophones -- first, with the World Saxophone Quartet, and then, after having left the WSQ, with his own all-sax Julius Hemphill Sextet. Saxophonist Marty Ehrlich was a member of Hemphill's last group, and has endeavored to continue the band after Hemphill's death in 1995. This 1997 album has the sextet playing a host of Hemphill's snappish, densely harmonized pieces. There's not much improvising; the focus is on Hemphill's tunes, and they are without exception executed well. The playing is just clean enough, with the barest hint of anarchy around the edges. It's an obviously heartfelt and respectful homage to the master. Unfortunately, there's a certain blandness to this group, probably due to its lack of a truly compelling player. All these guys are fine, but none possess Hemphill's fire and audacious creativity. While Hemphill's compositions are first rate, this band reminds one a bit of Duke Ellington's ghost orchestra under the direction of his son, Mercer. Without the presence of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and others, that band was just a group of good players playing Duke's tunes. It's the same here. Even the greatest jazz compositions need players with strong personalities to make the music come alive. None of these players -- good as they may be -- are on a level of originality with David Murray, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, and, of course, Hemphill himself. So while it's a treat to be able to hear Hemphill's work still being played, one ultimately compelled to return to the old WSQ records, which represent his best work.

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