Originally posted 3 August 2006
Mbari : 1972
Julius Hemphill, alto sax, flute; Baikida E.J. Carroll, trumpet; Abdul Wadud, cello; Philip Wilson, drums.
Who’s afraid of a little funk? Or a little skronk? The late Julius Hemphill wasn’t the first one to come up with the idea of fusing Free Jazz with Rhythm & Blues — see also: Joe McPhee circa Nation Time, Luther Thomas circa Funky Donkey, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago circa Les Stances a Sophie. But Dogon A.D. was and remains the most far-reaching and organic synthesis of those seemingly far-flung styles. Free funk, y’all.
The title track of Dogon A.D. is long, but every second of its 14 minutes is essential. The track starts at a slow slimmer and steadily builds until you’re completely enveloped. The key here is Hemphill’s matter-of-fact meshing of a steady funk beat and acoustic instruments. He doesn’t play up the novelty of his approach and doesn’t hold back on some serious sax pyrotechnics. The key here is Abdul Wadud’s cello. The unusual texture he adds to the tune keeps it from becoming overly familiar, foregrounding Hemphill’s compositional finesse. The key here is Hemphill’s sense of play and his ability to evoke R&B without falling into cliches. It’s no mean feat to get so funky without ever using a bass!
Dogon A.D. was self-produced and self-released by Hemphill. At the time, he was a leader of the Black Artists’ Group (BAG) in St. Louis. It served as another reminder that great music could — and did — come from anywhere and wasn’t just a product of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Although the album was reissued on Arista/Freedom in 1977, it never generated the sort of seismic impact it deserved. Instead, Dogon A.D. created its groundswell one fan at a time. Most famously, it completely transformed and inspired saxophonist Tim Berne. He immediately sought out Hemphill and studied with him for years. Two quick testimonials from Berne:
“I hadn’t listened to much jazz, but then I heard Julius Hemphill’s album Dogon A.D., and that completely turned me around. It captured everything I liked in music. It had this Stax/R&B sensibility and it had this other wildness. It was incredible. That’s when I started playing.”
“His album Dogon A.D. bridged all these things I’d been listening to. I was able to reconcile the R&B side of me with the side that listened to Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. Somehow he managed to do everything in the same package without anything being idiomatic. And he had a really soulful sound that I could relate to from listening to guys like King Curtis and Junior Walker.”
Berne has talked extensively about Hemphill and knows his work far better than us. So check out this interview for more details, and check out the rest of his Screwgun site while you’re there. Berne’s exceptional music is just one way that Hemphill’s work — and Dogon A.D. in particular — continues to exert a soulful and profound influence over jazz.