The legacy of Julius Hemphill, the jazz saxophonist and composer who died in 1995, was celebrated in words, music and images at the Corcoran on Saturday night. Like Hemphill's own creations, the tribute was infused with great passion and not a little humor.
The evening began with a preview of a rough cut version of a video documentary, "Julius Hemphill's Long Tongue," which revealed a great deal about Hemphill's visionary work in multimedia forms and his boldly imaginative collaborations with choreographer Bill T. Jones. Produced and directed by District Curators' Bill Warrell, the video served as a prelude to a spirited performance by the latest edition of the Julius Hemphill Sextet, consisting of reedmen Marty Ehrlich, Andrew White, Alex Harding, Sam Furnace, Andy Laster and Aaron Stewart.
Save for the Billy Strayhorn piece "Lush Life," which vividly recalled Hemphill's tenure with the World Saxophone Quartet, all of the music was composed by Hemphill and much of it made marvelous use of the massed horns. "Fat Man," "The Moat and the Bridge" and other pieces were anchored by Furnace's robust baritone sax, over which a variety of tenor, alto and soprano saxes were deployed. Some of the passages were layered with thick, resonating harmonies, others laced with buzzing dissonances, and several arrangements inspired incendiary improvisations by the indefatigable White and his band mates.
Despite unconventional and occasionally earsplitting harmonic schemes, Hemphill's music has a fundamentally visceral appeal, rooted in blues and gospel music. Even listeners with little interest in the more adventurous expressions of jazz can appreciate its bedrock soulfulness. Indeed, it was impossible to resist the ensemble's funky momentum when it closed the concert by marching around the hall to the strutting beat of "The Hard Blues."