Hamiet Bluiett

Michael Ullman reviews Hamiet Bluiett's album "Im/possible to Keep".

By Michael Ullman
March 21, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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when baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett came to New York City in 1969, he says in the notes to "Im/possible to Keep," the jazz scene was hurting. Nevertheless, he found work almost immediately -- with the Nigerian drummer Olatunji, with Sam Rivers and finally with Charles Mingus, who appreciated Bluiett's huge, malleable tone and outrageous passion. A master of his unwieldy instrument, Bluiett can take a single phrase from a hoarse whisper to a raucous shout, play blues with conviction and imagination and wail freely while keeping a solid beat. Bluiett plays what we once called "free jazz" or "the new thing," but he's thoroughly grounded in the tradition: Many of his pieces, such as "Oasis," found here, are based on powerful bass lines and repetitive riffs that he swings. His music is considered avant-garde, but it has all the virtues of traditional jazz, its rhythm and melody gradually gathering power.

Bluiett has become best known as the anchor of the World Saxophone Quartet. In 1977, when he appeared at the loft The Axis with pianist Don Pullen, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Don Moye, he was still one of the younger hotshots out of the St. Louis-based cooperative Black Artists Group (BAG). He still had to make his mark. He made it with such performances as the ravishing sets on "Im/possible to Keep," recorded that year. The two discs feature extended renditions of originals and one ringer, Sonny Rollins' "Tune Up." The band, stars all, don't merely interpret monochromatically a piece such as the aptly titled "Pretty Tune" -- they paint it all sorts of colors and hold it up to all sorts of lights. They begin with a straight, ballad-like approach and gradually shake off the form, entering in long, passionate discussions that never seem aimless.


Bluiett has indeed rarely been more grandly eloquent. The late Pullen has another approach, playing in darting runs that I once compared to the anxieties of small animals. Hopkins and Moye provide solid support when it's needed and make their own conversational gambits. These discs capture a brilliant, accessible evening of music in excellent stereo sound, but they also document the loft scene at a crucial point in time.

Michael Ullman

Michael Ullman is a jazz writer and lecturer in the music department of Tufts University.

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