Look, Ma, No Hands! 

The World Saxophone Quartet hits the road without a driver.

Hamiet Bluiett, baritone saxophone and contra-alto clarinet player for the World Saxophone Quartet, has never been entirely comfortable with tribute albums. They smack of arrested creativity, of retread. If the gruff, outspoken Bluiett's already heard it, chances are, he doesn't want to hear somebody else try to do it again, and he'll tell you that to your face. That's why the World Saxophone Quartet typically fills out its albums with spiky, vibrant original material penned by Bluiett and the other quarteters. Nevertheless, as Bluiett recalls, the two Sax Quartet albums devoted to composers outside the ranks--Duke Ellington (Plays Duke Ellington) and, more recently, Miles Davis (Selim Sivad)--were just about impossible to avoid.

"When [Elektra/Nonesuch Records] asked us to do Ellington, it was like, How do you say no?" Bluiett says. "It's almost impossible to say no, because it almost doesn't make sense. 'Oh, I don't need to record Miles.' Wait a minute. 'We don't need to do Ellington.' Uh, hello? Are you listening to yourself? What are you saying?"

It wasn't just the recognition of two influences nearly as omnipresent as oxygen that drew the quartet to the trumpeter and the piano man, but also a kindred musical ethos. Both Duke and Miles knew and respected the tradition, but it wasn't an untouchable, delicate, fancy-glass-case thing for them. It was more like a fine suit that doesn't quite fit; instead of going around looking foolish with flood-length pants and ripped seams in the shoulders, they tailored the suit to their overlarge creative impulse. Which is exactly what the Sax Quartet has been doing for years. What better tribute than an album of Miles or Duke tunes with an indelible Sax Quartet stamp?

"What we did [on Selim Sivad] was take Miles's music and made it fit what we do," Bluiett says, "'cause he was somebody who we thought worthy, as other people are, of stretching. He was known as a stretcher, you understand? He was part of that. Duke was part of that. I don't know if I can consider other guys the same way. [Some] were great, but they don't have that same sort of history."

World Saxophone Quartet's own history began in the mid '70s, when Bluiett and alto saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake met tenor player David Murray on the campus of Southern University in New Orleans. The four lectured and performed around town with a local rhythm section, but found that they really enjoyed playing only with each other, in a leaderless quartet without a piano, bass, or drums. Though similar ensembles abound now, at the time, the approach was totally fresh.

"They used to have those pianoless quartets and this and that," Bluiett says. "We [had] us a rhythm-sectionless quartet."

The new setup demanded deft arranging and equally deft soloing. The four horn men had to account for a missing rhythm section and chordal accompaniment, which meant that any misplaced gesture left a gaping hole. The quartet pulled it off remarkably well. On albums such as Black Saints and Plays Duke Ellington, Bluiett's own impossibly dark, brooding baritone sets a rock-solid foundation, as the quartet soars comfortably between bright, swinging passages and raucous, free outbursts with the visceral intimacy of an a cappella choir.

"We don't have a rhythm section that has to move like a unit," Bluiett says. "The rhythm section concept is like a whole car moving down the road by itself. But with four people, we're not locked up like a piano, bass, and drums. We move together and separately. Somebody gets to a point and we all turn at once. We're not just keeping a straight time . . . It's a new evolution in sound."

Like Ellington and Davis, the quartet didn't wallow in its early innovations. The first outward sign of restlessness came when the Sax Quartet got tired of tried-and-true standard voicings. They started doubling on other horns with a vengeance. Murray's goosey, popping bass clarinet, Lake's Dolphy-fired flute, Hemphill's soprano, and Bluiett's alto clarinet, among others, began showing up at recording dates, altering the sound of the group. Though it was a sad moment for the quartet when Hemphill grew too ill to continue, the group used the opportunity to reinvent itself again, shifting personnel until it eventually replaced Hemphill, an alto player, with John Purcell, a tenor player who could double on the funny-shaped soprano cousin, the saxello.

The World Saxophone Quartet moved into a whole other stage when it began inviting additional musicians into the recording studio. As Bluiett recalls, plans have been and still are in the works for grand, large-scale collaborations with gospel choirs and orchestras, but for the last few years, the most notable realized addition has been a cadre of African drummers. The drummers give propulsive force to the tunes, not only freeing up Bluiett from rhythm duties, but also giving the entire quartet much more breathing room. On its latest recording, the Miles tribute, the quartet sits out for long stretches, giving the percussionists and guest drummer/pianist Jack DeJohnette plenty of space. Almost too much. For fans of the agile, self-sufficient quartet, the album may seem like a recording by African drummers featuring the World Saxophone Quartet, and not the other way around.

Over their twenty-plus-year history, the members of the Sax Quartet have always split time between the group and personal projects. Each has made notable recordings under his own name, and Murray has gone on to become one of the most frequently recorded tenor players in recent history. But despite the diverted attention, the individual members still find plenty to get excited about with the Sax Quartet. At present, the four have lost interest in outside musicians and have found renewed enthusiasm for the unadorned quartet. They just finished recording the first of four albums featuring only Purcell, Lake, Murray, and Bluiett, and the thought alone gets the excitable baritone saxophonist jumping and shouting.

"Everybody's upgrading their music. We got Pentium 3 going on, so the shift's got to be out here. I'm looking forward to the future, 'cause if everyone holds on to the past, there won't be nothing to hold on to anymore. So when 2000 kicks in, and then the so-called Y2K, all that stuff kicks in, we'll really have something going."

For the Tri-C JazzFest appearance, Murray will be indisposed, but his temporary replacement, John Stubblefield, has subbed in the quartet before. And then, just to shake things up even more, sitting in will be the superlative DeJohnette.

"When we come through--I don't want to make no predictions--but when we come through, we gonna give it our best shot, to make sure that the concert is really enjoyable, vivacious, the kind of thing that music is really about."

World Saxophone Quartet. 7:30 p.m., Sunday, April 18, Tri-C Metro Auditorium, 2900 Community College Avenue, $15, 216-241-6000.

More by Aaron Steinberg


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