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Members include Hamiet Bluiett (born on September 16, 1940, in Lovejoy, IL), baritone saxophone, alto clarinet; Arthur Blythe (born on July 5, 1940, in Los Angeles, CA; joined group, 1990; left group, 1992; rejoined group, 1994; left group, 1995), alto saxophone; Julius Hemphill (born in 1940 in Fort Worth, TX; died on April 2, 1995; left group, 1990), soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, flute; Oliver Lake (born on September 14, 1942, in Marianna, AR), soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, keyboards, flute; DavidMurray (born on February 19, 1955), tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Eric Person (born in St. Louis, MO; group member, 1993-96), soprano saxophone, alto saxophone; John Purcell (joined group, 1996), saxophones, saxello, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinets; James Spaulding (born on July 30, 1937, in Indianapolis, IN; group member, 1993), alto saxophone, flute. Addresses: Record company--Justin Time Records, Inc., 5455 Pare, Suite 101, Montreal, QC H4P 1P7, Canada.

Since its inception in 1976, the World Saxophone Quartet has been critically lauded for its improvisatory skills and is considered among the legitimate heirs to such post-bop, free jazz, and postmodern jazz pioneers as Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy. The tonal innovations and radical new approaches that these musicians introduced to the jazz idiom in the 1960s include a rejection of mainstream jazz in favor of music more closely resembling that of such modern composers as Charles Ives and John Cage; these innovations eventually influenced some of the most highly regarded jazz recordings of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders. These recordings feature longer performances of individual musical pieces, which were played in a more spontaneous, unstructured fashion that often resulted in deeply disturbing, cacophonous performances.

The World Saxophone Quartet has continued these groundbreaking traditions, while adding the musicians' individual abilities to compose distinctive jazz music that serves as a launching pad for their improvisatory skills. While the largely unaccompanied four-saxophone lineup of the World Saxophone Quartet has drawn critical comparisons to the string quartets most commonly associated with classical chamber music, the Quartet has experimented equally with atonal music, distortion, volume, jazz standards by such composers as Duke Ellington, and European classical compositions. Each member of the original lineup of the World Saxophone Quartet was associated with the 1970s "loft jazz" scene in New York City.

Three original members of the World Saxophone Quartet--Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill, and Oliver Lake--were acquaintances from the vibrant jazz scene of St. Louis, Missouri, during the 1960s and early 1970s. Hemphill grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and immersed himself in the city's jazz and R&B scene, including a period of study with jazz clarinetist John Carter. After a brief stint as a saxophonist for Ike Turner, Hemphill joined the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, a loosely knit consortium of artists who experimented with poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, and music. He moved to New York City in the mid-1970s and worked with such free jazz proponents as Anthony Braxton and Lester Bowie.

A leader of the Black Artists Group, Lake was extremely knowledgeable about free jazz theories as well as being an accomplished saxophonist and composer. He spent much of the early 1970s with other Black Artists Group members in Paris, France, before eventually relocating to New York City. Bluiett had also been a member of the Black Artists Group, until 1969, when he moved to New York City. In New York he performed with celebrated jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. The youngest member of the four original World Saxophone Quartet members, David Murray, was raised by musical parents in Berkeley, California. He switched from playing alto saxophone to tenor saxophone after hearing Sonny Rollins. He studied music with Ornette Coleman's former trumpeter Bobby Bradford and befriended writer Stanley Crouch at Pomona College. When he was 20, Murray moved to New York City and opened Studio Infinity, a loft venue where he played with Crouch on drums and Mark Dresser on bass. Among his most important jazz influences were avant-garde saxophonists Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp.

In 1976 Ed Jordan, chairman of the Music Department at New Orleans Southern University, invited the four musicians to a series of seminars and concerts. The impromptu group discovered that the audience showed greater appreciation for their performances done without the assistance of a rhythm section. The creative interplay between the four musicians prompted them to organize as a group that would play the United States jazz circuit. They performed at the Tin Palace, New York City, as the Real New York Saxophone Quartet. Because the city already boasted a jazz group named the New York Saxophone Quartet, Bluiett, Hemphill, Lake, and Murray changed the name of their ensemble to the World Saxophone Quartet.

Although the members of the World Saxophone Quartet boasted similar influences, their individual sounds were distinctive. Murray created a deep tenor sound that employed a substantial amount of vibrato, drawing comparisons to bebop saxophonists Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. But he also featured unresolved or improperly resolved tones that drew comparisons to a similar style of "wrong-note" playing by tenor saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Lake's style also has been compared to Dolphy's, though Lake mostly played alto saxophone. Critics detect distinctive R&B and blues elements in his playing, with some reviewers comparing his style to James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker.

Baritone saxophone player Bluiett is considered the group's most traditional-sounding musician, drawing his style from traditional blues and bebop jazz and prompting comparisons to baritone saxophone player Harry Carney from the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He has been praised for the range he can draw from his instrument, sometimes playing his saxophone in registers most often associated with tenor or soprano saxophones. Hemphill's alto saxophone playing was distinctive for its volume and harsh sound. He was also lauded as perhaps the most distinctive composer within the World Saxophone Quartet, though each member's compositional abilities has been singled out for critical praise. In fact, as the group's recording career progressed, each subsequent album was commended for containing stronger compositions than its predecessor. The group's inaugural recording, Point of No Return, was released in 1977 and is noted for consisting almost entirely of improvised playing. The group steadily gained critical and audience appreciation, consistently being included in the Top Five Jazz Groups list in the Down Beat magazine Annual Critic's Poll, as well as being named Best Jazz Group in the Playboy magazine Reader's Poll. The album World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington was included on the New York Times Best Albums of 1986 list.

Each member of the World Saxophone Quartet has enjoyed success with projects outside the group. Bluiett performed with Motown artists Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder; Lake led the funk and reggae band Jump Up and published poetry; Murray is among the most prodigious jazz artists of his era, recording and performing as a solo artist and leader of several ensembles of varying sizes; and Hemphill departed the group in 1989 to pursue other musical interests, including opera. He died in 1995. The group replaced Hemphill with Arthur Blythe in 1990. When Blythe departed in 1992, he was replaced by James Spaulding. In 1993 Spaulding was replaced by Eric Person, who, in turn, was replaced until 1996 by a returning Blythe. That year, John Purcell became Hemphill's permanent replacement. A soprano saxophone player, Purcell earned high critical praise as a member of drummer Jack DeJohnette's group Special Edition.

Following Hemphill's departure and subsequent death, the World Saxophone Quartet continued to experiment with composition and sounds. In 1991 the group released Metamorphosis, an album that features African drums played by Mor Thiam, Chief Bev, and Mar Gueye. Employing percussion for the first time, the group earned praise from Musician critic Tom Moon, who noted: "Most of Metamorphosis is celebratory; guttural squawks and somber prayers and parading riffs that suggest music can join the pelvis with the inner temple of the soul.... The WSQ horns help the drums communicate rather than just keep time. The drums help the horns sustain genuinely engrossing patterns rather than brainy abstractions. It's a match." In 1998 the World Saxophone Quartet released Selim Sivad: A Tribute to Miles Davis, which features the drumming of Jack DeJohnette. In 2000 the group released a tribute album to Hemphill, Requiem for Julius, which contains the title composition written by Murray.

by Bruce Walker

World Saxophone Quartet's Career

Group formed at New Orleans Southern University, 1976; released debut album, Point of No Return, 1977; album World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington named among year's best albums by New York Times, 1986; group named "Best Jazz Group," Playboy magazine Reader's Poll, 1987; founder Julius Hemphill left group, 1990; John Purcell named as permanent member, 1996.

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