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Julius Hemphill and Peter Kowald - Live at Kassiopeia

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Artist: Julius Hemphill and Peter Kowald

Album: Live at Kassiopeia

Label: NoBusiness

Review date: Mar. 13, 2012

Julius Hemphill never quite got his due. The saxophonist played in Ike Turner’s horn section, schooled Tim Berne and David Sanborn, and was the primary writer for the first and best version of the World Saxophone Quartet. He also developed an idiosyncratic body of work, from the towering, heavy-grooving free blues of Dogon A.D. to a series of all-sax ensembles in the decade before his premature death from diabetes. He’s been gone since 1995, and much of his catalog is out of print; who knew that 2011 would be his year? First came a superb CD edition of Dogon A.D., and now this previously unissued set from 1987. It captures two sides of Hemphill — solo performer and chance-taking improviser — both drawn from a concert he shared with German double bassist Peter Kowald.

Kowald was, like Hemphill, a guy who did things his way. While Hemphill found the sophistication in primitive blues and tonal glory in homophony, the German bassist was an inveterate adventurer, ready to play with anyone, anywhere in the world. It’s not so surprising to find him on stage with Hemphill, but it’s a bit odd to find the Texas-born, NYC-based horn man sharing space with a European; even his late-phase chamber pieces were made in the U.S.A. But apparently he made his way through Wuppertal, Germany in the winter of 1987, and Kowald was game to share a gig with him.

How that gig ended up being released 24 years after the fact by a Lithuanian label is a story I’d like to know about, but the CD is mute. In fact, there are no notes at all beyond the usual instrumental and recording credits, so the music will have to be enough. Disc one comprises two solo sets. Hemphill navigates the blues, but he doesn’t stop there. You can also hear his roots in technically imposing bebop (his early favorites included Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and Paul Desmond) and a crying spirit that burrows beyond genre into a deep vein of longing. It’s swell stuff, pithy and spirited, although I must say that you’ll get a lot more solo Hemphill for your dollar from the double disc Blue Boyé (Screwgun) than you will here. Kowald’s solo set doesn’t depart much from others you may have heard; lots of hair-raising bowed work, a bit of throat singing in harmony with a sawed drone… you get the drift. It is roughly recorded, so you might first consider seeking out some of his solos or international encounters on FMP if you haven’t heard him before.

The duo’s set only partly coheres. It certainly isn’t tentative; both men jump right in, matching coarse-grained textures for a moment before Hemphill sets to a darting dance over Kowald’s rough drone. As the performance progresses, they co-exist quite successfully, with the bassist doing a lot of the accommodating; he even contributes some good old-fashioned walking lines a third of the way into “Duo II.” Hemphill switches to soprano for some avian trills that quite nicely complement Kowald’s swooping pizzicato moves. The music works, but one never gets the feeling that the two men connect at some deeper level. Live At Kassiopeia is neither more nor less than a memento of an unlikely but successful encounter.

By Bill Meyer

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