THE NEW World Saxophone Quartet album "Metamorphosis" represents two major departures for the group. First, it's the band's first album without founding member Julius Hemphill (Hemphill has been ailing but his exit was not entirely amicable). There are very few alto saxophonists in the world who could take his place, but the WSQ has recruited one of those few: Arthur Blythe. Second, this is the first WSQ album to use any musicians other than the four reed players in the band. Three Senegalese percussionists are featured on all 10 numbers, and New York electric bassist Melvin Gibbs plays on three tracks.
The results are uneven. The West African drummers are good, but they never build the overwhelming groove that we often hear on West African records now reaching North America. In other words, these three drummers are not the very best in their field as the four WSQ members are in theirs. Moreover, the attempt by the American horn players to replicate African motifs comes off as more dilettantish than convincing.
The album is more persuasive when the emphasis shifts to American jazz, and the Senegalese add their rhythmic flavors to the background. "Metamorphosis," the title of a Blythe solo album, is redone here with massed, honking horns; Hamiet Bluiett's "Feed the People" recasts his WSQ theme song, "Hattie Wall," as an extended solo showcase for all seven musicians. Oliver Lake's "Africa" has a riffing rhythm & blues feel with David Murray's bass clarinet and Gibbs's bass anchoring the bottom. The album's highlight, though, is Murray's Ellingtonesque "Ballad for the Black Man," which boasts a warmly romantic melody and a terrific solo by Murray himself.
WORLD SAXOPHONE QUARTET AND AFRICAN DRUMS -- "Metamorphosis" (Elektra/Nonesuch). Appearing Friday at the Barns of Wolf Trap.