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Let's be up front: the World Saxophone Quartet has never made a bad record. Sure, some listeners might not appreciate the unbridled energy that marks much of their workbut as for the rest, there are no low points. On the other hand, no single WSQ record stands out above their twenty-some others. Certainly that's a catch most bands would gladly aspire to achieve, but it also presents a challenge when the group steps forward to document a new performance. The latest WSQ effort, Steppenwolf, offers a refreshing contrast to much of the quartet's studio work: it documents a live performance. For such a finely tuned machine, this change is akin to taking the Ferrari off the racetrack and setting it loose on the open road.
The eight tunes on the disc include compositions by each current band member. Steppenwolf features the same degree of intuitive cohesion that marks all the group's work to date. When intricate harmonies are needed to support a lead, two or three players step up effortlessly to lend a hand. When the group hits the open road, each member blows hard. "Giant Steps," for example, features a broad range of styles. Interspersed between articulately harmonized refrains, these players venture as far "out" as they've ever done on record. They pause two tunes later for John Purcell's "Toré," a gentle, lyrical piece in which darkly colored harmonies serve as a backdrop for flowing lines up top.
Soprano saxophonist John Purcell indeed delivers some of his most dramatic work yet on Steppenwolf, both in terms of performance and composition; by this point he's firmly entrenched in the position left vacant after the death of founding member Julius Hemphill in 1995. And while David Murray maintains his ever-present pursuit of energy and drama, he yields enough space for the rest of the band to fully stretch out. Murray's bass clarinet work on half these tunes has a thick visceral edge that nicely complements the other players.
Mysteriously, this Chicago audience does not seem to fully appreciate the magic on stage (their loss, clearly). But Steppenwolf is a fine record indeed. A masterpiece? No. But most definitely up to the very high standards this group has set over the last quarter century.
Track Listing: Intro; The Crossing; Intro; Li'l Poki; Intro; Sunrise; Giant Steps; Intro; Color for Duke; Intro; Tor
Personnel: Bluiett: baritone saxophone; Oliver Lake: alto saxophone; David Murray: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; John Purcell: soprano saxophone, clarinet.