The muscularity and imposing sound of the World Saxophone Quartet can be overwhelming to neophytes. Practiced listeners welcome WSQ's stately resonance and unpretentious tenor. And although the second alto chair vacated by the departure and passing of the late Julius Hemphill has evolved, a permanent substitute seems remote. The seasoned Oliver Lake, established Hamiett Bluiett, and dynamic David Murray (unedited and in their own words) continue to expand the lore of (after more than a quartet of a century) what has become a jazz institution.
All About Jazz: Why a Jimi Hendrix tribute?
Oliver Lake: Well, actually, it wasn't totally our idea. When it was present to us though, everybody had an affinity and had a history with it. Somehow that music has affected all of us. When the idea came up, everybody was really into doing it. I've listened to that music through the years and some of those lyrics just really hit me on a personal level and it's become part of my musical history.
David Murray: Everybody likes Jimi Hendrix. Everybody in the band likes Jimi Hendrix. I think the world likes Jimi Hendrix. He is particularly from my era, more so than some of the other guys in the group. I grew up in Berkeley in the '60s and '70s. This was really the time of Jimi Hendrix. I actually was on a committee that had him come to play the Berkeley Community Theater. I was on a committee at Berkeley High School at that time to have him there. It was part of our dream to have Jimi there and it ended up being his last great concert.
AAJ: Did you get to meet Hendrix?
OL: No, never.
DM: Well, actually, it wasn't really a meeting, but I kind of touched his cloak. I was backstage and there were a lot of people back there. There was a line of people just trying to go and see him and I am sure they all had some acid. Jimi was pretty stoned before the concert. I don't see how he got on stage, but when he got on stage, he just light up. There were a lot of weird people back there wanting to sell what they had with Jimi.
AAJ: Hendrix was an improviser.
OL: That's right. Just his interpretations alone, if you think of the "Star Spangled Banner" thing that he did. It was just one of the things that stood out for me when I heard that. It was in the tradition of great improvisers, to take a familiar tune and really make it yours. His creativity just stretches in a lot of ways.
DM: Oh, truly, and of the highest order. If there weren't so many people pulling on him, I'm sure he would have certainly been some kind of jazz musician. His thing just attracted so many different styles of people that it was obvious that he had to be a rock musician during that time because he had all the ingredients. Jimi could have dropped in any era. If he came ten years from now and landed on our planet, this guy would be on the biggest stage, with the brightest light because he was the best guitarist. I think Jimi Hendrix could have played with anybody. I heard he was doing some stuff with Miles Davis up at Woodstock. He could have played with the Sun Ra Arkestra if he wanted to.
AAJ: What do you attribute to the World Saxophone Quartet's longevity?
OL: I think it is just knowing each other so well that we know when to get together and when not to get together. We've learned our personalities and know that the music is the leader of the band. When we get on stage, there is a magic that happens and we all want to preserve that. Over the years, whatever differences we've had in terms of personalities, that has all been smoothed out with the music.
DM: I think probably because we don't see each other all that much. We play a couple times a year and that's it. When we get together, we try to make it serious. That's all. We don't see each other that often.
AAJ: So it is like riding a bicycle.
DM: Pretty much, riding a bicycle, swimming type of thing. We all try to write compositions so that when we see each other, we have something fresh to play. I will tell you, personally, I've been going through some of my music lately and I think I misplaced a lot of the old music, so it is not necessary that I even have it anymore. That music doesn't even need to be played anymore. That's finished. So every time we see each other, we're just dealing with whatever project is on. That's the beauty of it and I think that is the way that we should keep it.
OL: (Laughing) David is in late forties and Bluiett and I are in our early sixties, of course, we have been playing music for over forty years. If you add it all up together, it's more than a hundred years.
AAJ: As a composer, what liberties does writing for four saxophones afford you?
OL: It is wide open when you're not restricted by anything. You have these great improvisers that are expanding whatever compositional ideas that you have. It's great.
DM: For me, it has become such an easy thing to do. I took my cues from when Julius was in the band. We would get on an airplane to get out to California and he would start a composition on the plane and write the parts on the way out the plane. It is like that for me now. I watched Julius adamantly during those times and I learned largely how to write from watching him. He was a great composer and he was very fast in his composition.
AAJ: Since the departure of Julius Hemphill, the second alto chair has been inconsistent.
DM: You're right, the lead alto in the World Saxophone Quartet is something that vacillates. As far as I'm concerned, I think it needs to continue to vacillate because it is chair that probably will never live up to the guy who invented the chair, Julius Hemphill.
OL: I think every time we got somebody, I thought that was the person. When Arthur Blythe was in the band, I thought that was it. When James Spaulding was in the band, I said that it was great. So I was with every person that got in and was filling that spot.
AAJ: And the chair is currently occupied by?
DM: Bruce Williams. Bruce Williams is on the album.
OL: Actually, I brought him into the World Saxophone Quartet.
AAJ: Have the criticisms of your record production subsided?
DM: During the last ten years of my life, I have personally been on a quest to make sure that every time out, I do something that is completely different than the last and the level of the recording and writing tops the last thing that I did. That is really my concept now and for the rest of my recording career, to really just strive to make that perfect one. I know I have been criticized in the past for doing an abundance of things, but I don't even think that way. Maybe the ego gets in the way, but people always tell me how many things I've done and I'm still pissed off about the things I didn't get an opportunity to do.
AAJ: And the future?
OL: I am about to release a steel quartet recording that will be coming out next month, a new CD from Passin' Thru. In November, we will be doing the Jimi Hendrix project at the Iridium for one week.
DM: The Latin big band, actually, it's a Cuban big band, but these days everybody is so down on Cuba, it is hard to get the distribution on when you say that word. It is really unfair. Wait until the Democrats get back in. I just got back yesterday from Budapest. I did a recording of gypsy music. I wrote a couple of tunes. I had to cram and find out what these gypsies were up to. They've got some beautiful, hip music, I was really astounded by the level of their musicianship. I will begin to tour again with my Gwo-Ka Masters band. I'm keen on doing this Taj Mahal collaboration. Taj is into it. He's a good friend and I've been writing some songs to put in his mouth. I wrote a really great song for him called "Bad Mouth" that really signifies our times. I want to get it recorded. I've got to get The Grateful Dead to do it too. Politically, it is a great song. After the thing with Taj Mahal, I imagine I will do another Cuban big band album and get a little deeper with that.
David Murray by Skip Bolen
Oliver Lake by Ralph Gluch