Jimi Eat World Saxophone Quartet

Why it makes perfect sense to find a jazz troupe playing Hendrix

It's no wonder Jimi Hendrix killed himself with excess. His mercurial rise to fame and its debilitating pressures proved to be more than he could handle. At root, the legendary '60s guitarist seems to have been a deeply sensitive artist, whose means of survival was a fundamental need to explore music with absolute freedom. But few folks in his crowded circle of colleagues, friends, and industry hangers-on were sympathetic. Numerous investigative tomes published in the 35 years since his death allege that even those who knew Hendrix best rarely knew him well. And the popular talking heads of his day, from archconservative William F. Buckley to liberal-leaning Dick Cavett, never could figure him out.

New York Times staffer Ben Sisario is the latest so-called pundit to demonstrate his cluelessness. In a recent book review of Room Full of Mirrors, a new biography by Charles R. Cross, the arts writer suggests that while "it would be difficult to overstate Hendrix's influence on rock in the 1960's and 70's ... [his] place in the age of Jack White is less certain. Nobody plays like him anymore." This argument is clearly myopic, considering only one facet -- the six-string-burning/bombs-bursting-in-air histrionics -- of a complex musical persona. There's so much more to Hendrix's legacy, including a distinctive, lyrical approach to chord voicings and harmonic development -- evident on classic ballads such as "Little Wing," "Angel," and "The Wind Cries Mary" -- that is widely (if simplistically) emulated by today's pop, rock, and alternative hip hop performers, from Weezer to Everlast. Perhaps even more important, from an artistic standpoint, is the guitarist's enduring influence on forward-thinking jazz.

Near the end of his life, Hendrix had begun to move away from the strictures of the standard pop song toward more open-ended, improv-heavy forms. There was talk of a possible collaboration with the iconic Miles Davis, and rumors made the rounds that the self-taught guitarist was planning to take a break from nonstop recording and touring to learn how to read and write music, ostensibly so he could hang with the leaders of the avant-garde. In its December 1970 issue, Down Beat magazine (the last word in all things jazz at the time) posthumously bestowed upon Hendrix a Readers' Hall of Fame award. Around the same time, Davis introduced a new jazz-rock fusion that had the Voodoo Chile's signature sonic experimentation all over it.

Yes, These Guys Are Experienced: The World 
Saxophone Quartet.
Fernando Natalici
Yes, These Guys Are Experienced: The World Saxophone Quartet.

Last year, the veteran creative-music trailblazers of the New York-based World Saxophone Quartet reaffirmed the jazz community's connection to Hendrix by releasing Experience(Justin Time), a collection of spot-on yet wildly personal takes on the guitarist's tunes. "Jimi Hendrix, for me, stood for nearly everything I believed in during my early life, growing up in Berkeley during the '60s," writes tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist David Murray in the liner notes. "I didn't want to play like Jimi. I wanted to beJimi." Back then, the appeal for the now-renowned horn player was both musical and cultural. Today, it's all about the compositional integrity -- the vision -- of Hendrix's body of work, which continues to impress world-class musicians such as Murray and his bandmates Oliver Lake (alto, soprano), Bruce Williams (alto, soprano), and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone), who admits, "Time made me realize how architectural, poetic, innovative, and rich his compositions really were/are."

Given the fecundity of Hendrix's melodies, his songs have been covered over the years by scores of top jazz players, from Dr. Lonnie Smith, funky sovereign of the B-3 organ, to Pat Metheny, arguably the genre's most popular guitarist. But few of these master improvisers have managed to grasp the breadth of Hendrix's artistry like the World Saxophone Quartet. On Experience, the group mines the notes within the notes of the melodic arc of "Freedom"; amplifies the soulful core of "Little Wing"; pumps up the aggressive funk factor of "If 6 Was 9" and "Machine Gun"; channels the blues-steeped, African-griot spirit of "Hear My Train a Comin'"; and illuminates the free-flying, lyrical beauty of "The Wind Cries Mary" with a lush, elegant arrangement with echoes of Duke Ellington.

The members of the World Saxophone Quartet clearly understand the still-beating heart of this music. Their forward-jazz interpretations of Hendrix's beloved songbook feel like a natural evolution, a long-overdue fruition, a homecoming. These players get what Hendrix was about. They know him, heart and soul, as Murray explains, "because deep down inside he was also a jazz musician."

 
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