Fri November 4, 2011
Julius Hemphill's 'Dogon A.D.' Still A Revelation 40 Years On
Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D." — the 15-minute piece, and the album that's named for it — was one of the startling jazz recordings of the 1970s, a rethinking of possibilities open to the avant-garde. In the 1960s, free jazz was mostly loud and bashing, until some Chicagoans began playing a more open, quieter improvised music. That inspired St. Louis players like Hemphill, who also had ties to heartland rhythm-and-blues scenes. Hemphill's genius was to combine the Chicagoans' dramatically spare sound with a heavy backbeat. His new urban music smacked of old country blues.
Piloting that funky backbeat is drummer Philip Wilson, who'd already mixed free jazz and the blues by leaving the Art Ensemble of Chicago for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Another reason "Dogon A.D." sounds so mesmerizing is Abdul Wadud, whose cello sounds like a Delta blues guitar played with a bow. Wadud sticks mostly to two alternating licks: a grinding two-note riff and the nagging long tones that answer it. Self-contained call and response: That's very bluesy. On trumpet is St. Louis native Baikida Carroll.
Abdul Wadud wasn't the first jazz cellist, but he pointed the way for guitaristic cello improvisers to come, including Tom Cora, Ernst Reijseger, Diedre Murray and Erik Friedlander. "Dogon A.D." is captivating enough to suggest an unseen ritual — it's named for the Dogon people of West Africa, with their elaborate masked ceremonies. Hemphill's tune "Rites" is denser music for the same quartet. A melody with a catchy hook bleeds into a tight collective improvisation that really works because the players really listen to each other.
Other labels have tried to reissue Dogon A.D. before. So give credit to the indie label International Phonograph for putting out its second coveted reissue this year, after Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes. The new edition of Dogon A.D. contains an extra track from the same 1972 session that has been on CD before. "The Hard Blues" adds baritone saxist Hamiet Bluiett to the quartet.
A few years later, saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett helped found one of the quintessential New York bands of the late '70s and the '80s, the World Saxophone Quartet. That unit brought Hemphill's new old blues to a much wider audience. Hemphill made other great albums on his own, starting with his second, Coon Bid'ness, also known as Reflections. But none had quite the impact of Dogon A.D. Almost 40 years later, it's still a revelation.