World Saxophone Quartet

Yes We Can
Jazzwerkstatt JW 098

Who would have guessed that nearly 35 years after it was first organized the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) would make one of its most exciting CDs in years thanks to a 75-year-old guest star saxophonist? But it’s true. After a number of gimmicky CDs and live shows featuring shifting personnel, rhythm sections and odd song choices, the WSQ has returned to form with this superlative session thanks in no little part to the contributions of Kidd Jordan.

Playing alto saxophone instead of his usual tenor – thus filling missing WSQ founding member Oliver Lake’s chair – Jordan brings an indiscernible élan to the proceedings, evidently enlivening the group and prodding the other three players to masterful and imaginative work. The band’s other original members, baritone saxophonist and clarinetist Hamiet Bluiett and tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist David Murray are both present. Meanwhile tenor and soprano saxophonist James Carter seems to be the newest permanent WSQ member, most recent in a long line of reedists who have filled the fourth chair since Julius Hemphill departed in 1990.

It’s particularly appropriate that New Orleans-based soloist and educator Jordan gives the group new energy, since it was at his initiative that the WSQ was first organized – he invited the original players to make up an all-saxophone formation at a Crescent City festival. Here his dazzling reed command is featured most prominently on his own composition, “The River Niger”. Savoring the theme and rolling its attributes around on his tongue, alongside his reed and through his horn’s body tube, Jordan blends tone splinters, pitch vibrations and tongue slaps into a linear whole as Bluiett keeps up the lowing ostinato on baritone sax. Eventually Jordan’s narrative is joined by contrapuntal overlaps from Carter’s soprano sax and is completed in a round-robin formation as each WSQ member takes turn communicating through altissimo and staccatissimo pressurized trills variations on the theme.

Jordan’s skill and commitment is evident throughout the rest of this live Berlin concert as when he adds a horizontal set of false register asides to the baritonist’s initial elaboration of the title tune, or when he uses agitato split tone as a way to aid Murray in the latter’s deconstruction of the tenor saxophonist’s “Long March to Freedom”.

On “Yes We Can”, as Bluiett’s low-pitched snorting remains constant and the other two vamp behind him, Jordan slithers from one set of long-lined glissandi to another. His knife-sharp solo lines presages the performance’s defining climax as massed ring-shout-style contributions feature everyone tongue slapping and extending tone references from sources as different as sea shanties, work songs and “Dixie” [!] – before gritty four-part harmony signals the finale.

Murray, who may be the most (over) recorded saxophonist in Jazz history, proves that on the home territory of his own tune – with sympathetic backing – his playing can be as powerful as it was 30 years ago. Before the climax of “Long March to Freedom”, for instance, which involves another layer of miasmatic shrieks, bites, snorts, ricochets and puffs from all, sparked by continuous crescendos and diminuendos, Murray, a capella, dynamically tears apart and reconstitutes the exposition.

The other original WSQer appears rejuvenated by Jordan’s presence as well. Besides the rhythmic pedal point baritone-sax bottom he supplies to every tune, Bluiett’s “The Guessing Game” – a clarinet showpiece – is also notable. Producing extended glissandi which take in almost all the tonal extensions and partials his reed can produce, he accelerates to an airy, contralto theme as the others riff contrapuntally with key pops and mouth percussion. The solo’s high point is achieved as his exaggerated shrills and squeaks modulate into a balanced flat line, which in turn brings forth and then combines with moderato harmonies from the others.

Yes We Can is a major achievement from a foursome that is approaching or has equaled the Modern Jazz Quartet in longevity. But the key will be to maintain this lofty standard once the exceptional senior citizen featured here is no longer on board as a guest star.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Hattie Wall 2. The River Niger 3. Yes We Can 4. The God Of Pain 5. The Angel Of Pain 6. The Guessing Game 7. Long March To Freedom 8. Hattie Wall (Reprise)

Personnel: James Cater (soprano and tenor saxophone); Kidd Jordan (alto saxophone); David Murray (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone saxophone and clarinet)