My favorite tenor overall, due to his versatility. Bebop, blues, standards, backbeat fusion, Latin, free improv, etcetera - Joe Henderson could excel and retain his unique sound in any jazz department. That adaptability came from an all-encompassing rhythmic sense and a substantial melodic armory, while his tone could complement anyone or anything. Stuff can happen when you’ve digested the lessons of Bird, Getz, Coltrane, Ornette, and Rollins.
Beyond his one of a kind playing, Joe was a fantastic writer. His top drawer includes “Black Narcissus”, “Isotope”, “Punjab”, “Our Thing”, and “Recorda Me”. For those alone, he earns the gold pen, and there are more worth laminating.
The first five albums listed below are essential but only tell part of his story at Blue Note. His dates as a sideman are as revealing as those he made as a leader; some of the more popular examples include Horace Silver’s Song For My Father and Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder. On the more adventurous edge, he can be heard on Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, blowing alongside Dolphy.
A true blue classic and one of the most assured debut albums of any era. Henderson’s style - the warm tone, variable attack, and elasticity - are all in place. Sharing the front line is trumpeter Kenny Dorham, on whose album Una Mas Henderson had premiered; the duo would continue their partnership through the next few years. Dorham plays with brightness and economy, pianist McCoy Tyner provides more than adequate support, and bassist Butch Warren and drummer Pete LaRoca move the whole album with class. On the strength of material and playing, this approaches the jazz mirage of being a near perfect record, essential for any collection.
Joe sounds more harmonically conservative here than in later efforts, wrapped up in the intrinsic possibilities of some very sturdy tunes. Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” is a light dance with textbook changes, and Henderson’s “Recorda Me” is another Latin piece with similar ii-V signposts. The melodies of these tunes keep them timeless to this day - a couple of Blue Note’s greatest hits - and the solos from trumpet and tenor are finely constructed. “Jinrikisha” travels a more distant harmonic orbit with Henderson probing the changes like a detective. Dorham’s lengthy “La Mesha” would be maudlin but for the Coltrane-ish turnaround at the end of each chorus, and Henderson is anything but maudlin in this or any other ballad solo.
The blues pops up twice, one instance being “Homestretch”, which happens to presage several future Henderson blues tunes in its phrase lengths (the opening calls can be considered one of his trademarks) and intervallic leaps (compare “Homestretch” to the next album’s “Teeter Totter”, or the later “Other Side of Right”). “Out of the Night” is a slower, slyer 12-bar with an ascending bassline in measures 5-8 (a smart tactic for any blues) and a perfectly paced Henderson solo. As a whole, I have to give this album an A+, definitive as it is of both Henderson and Blue Note.
This is a less accessible collection than the debut, but as ‘page two’ it furthers the tenor’s vocabulary. Kenny Dorham rides sidecar again, Andrew Hill claims the piano bench, and Eddie Khan and Pete LaRoca form the rhythm team. The blues “Teeter Totter” gets the session off to a rollicking start with nice non-cliched solos. Joe’s other original is the standout title track, a breakneck bop line that turns to a harmonized waltz in the bridge, and these alternating rhythms are maintained throughout the solos. The group also plays three Dorham tunes. “Pedro’s Time” is a lengthy, relaxed, quasi-Latin piece, and “Back Road” sounds like a Jazz Messengers entree, albeit dipped in NyQuil. The yearning exposition of “Escapade” darkens as it goes; Dorham solos in an appropriate manner, and Hill takes to his chorus as if he had written the tune himself.
In this session, Henderson plays with a strong blues understanding and nails a few more personalized licks into place, but the other ancestry is tough to peg because harmonic substitutions appear more frequently at this point. (Bird is an obvious inspiration, though. Count all the two-note ‘be-bop’ ties in the “Teeter Totter” melody.) One interesting thing to hear is how Henderson propels himself into and through certain choruses with surprising lines that beg resolution. Andrew Hill’s piano work is another special element worth noting, as his voicings bring a shadowy atmosphere to this record, the dark horse of Joe’s early catalog.
Another quintet album, featuring Henderson, Dorham, Tyner, Richard Davis, and Elvin Jones. The title track is more out than in, a loose uptempo blues with Joe tearing about like a jaguar. He takes two exciting solos that prove he was “state of the tenor” in 1964, although there’s a glass ceiling on his aggression. Even when Henderson is overblowing, or microtoning, or spiraling into tantrum licks, he never loses his cool. “In ‘n Out” is one of his best performances, and his two other compositions here rate just as highly. “Punjab” has a lot of interesting melodic and harmonic activity, with an ascending chord sequence that surrounds the main theme. “Serenity” contains the surest melody on the album, and as with most of the other tracks, the Henderson/Dorham tones fit so well together, virtually singing in unison or harmony.
Kenny Dorham contributes two tunes: “Short Story”, with an Elvo-Latin rhythm and a fine tenor solo, and “Brown’s Town”, a nice if anticlimactic end to the album, and which strangely enough doesn’t feature any improv from Henderson. A fun thing about these tunes is hearing Tyner and Jones swing on specific chord changes in comparison to their freer work with John Coltrane at the time. There’s a lot of vitality on the album, a couple of great compositions, and fiery playing. (Some say Dorham gets lost in the shuffle, but I disagree.) Tough to make the call on Henderson’s “best” Blue Note title, but this is my personal favorite.
A lot of folks consider Inner Urge a pinnacle of sorts, and it’s very good indeed, eliminating trumpet and giving Joe full reign over piano, bass, and drums. Like Wayne Shorter’s Juju, it invites Coltrane comparisons simply because it’s a tenor-led quartet featuring McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, but where Shorter drifts into Trane’s orbit at times, Joe’s tone and phrasing aren’t to be confused with anyone else’s. The music does have a similar sort of darkness, though, and it’s interesting how the pianist and drummer adjusted to all three of these tenors in the mid-60s.
Joe debuts three originals here. The urgent title track moves through 4 bars each of 4 descending, altered chords, followed by 8 bars of zigzagging major-seventh chords. Bassist Bob Cranshaw solos first to set the stage for a dramatic Joe entry - too bad the tape fuzzes out a little at that point. “Inner Urge” is a really keen piece with good blowing, and I would love to have heard an alternate take. On the modified blues “Isotope”, Henderson blows with non-stop inspiration and the band swings hard. “El Barrio” rides a Latin vamp in a minor mode, very much like Coltrane’s earlier ‘60s music but stamped with Joe’s smoother seal. Well, smooth and raw, in this instance. His trills sound ominous, and the piano/sax exchanges at the end are great.
The covers include a strong revamp of “Night and Day” and a sweet Duke Pearson ballad called “You Know I Care”. The latter sounds lighthearted coming on the heels of “El Barrio” but Joe reads it with pure beauty. All five tracks are excellent and fit together very well, as do the players.
Septet, with Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, Bobby Hutcherson, Ron Carter, and Joe Chambers. That’s half Jazz Messengers alumni, half Newer Things, with Joe straddling the center. Yet instead of blending schools, it’s more like a standard Henderson outing with an overpopulation of soloists and some rather nervous ensembles. In a sense, this record’s lineup is larger than its ambitions, and as well as everyone plays, there is the feeling that there’s at least one too many birds at the feeder, but this album has its share of classic moments. “Mode For Joe” is a friendly modal piece with memorable solos, especially Hutcherson’s. A desert-isle selection, for sure. I remember the first time I heard this track, I had to go buy the album as soon as possible. Later on, “Carribbean Fire Dance” steps to a hypnotic piano riff that pulls heated playing from Morgan and and a climactic tom solo from Chambers. “Shade of Jade” is another fine original, hardboppically delightful. The sometimes cluttered ensembles and wide instrumental palette don’t obscure the fact that Henderson does some of his best playing on this record. His lines glide unlabored in all directions, and his favorite lick pops up now and again, most obviously in the title track at 1:54. Elsewhere, Cedar Walton shines on piano (check “Granted”, for one) and Fuller’s trombone justifies its presence throughout the session. I don’t rate Mode For Joe as highly as the previous records but find it just as necessary.
Henderson’s Milestone debut unnecessarily reintroduces the tenor via a grab bag program partly selected by producer Orrin Keepnews. Joe’s original compositions here (including “Mamacita” and the title track) were all previously recorded when he was a Blue Note sideman, and these condensed versions are little match for the maiden voyages. The borrowed material includes “Chelsea Bridge”, “Nardis”, and “Without A Song”, which Henderson plays as well as Rollins. There’s also a classy Jobim bossa, forecasting a certain tribute album in Henderson’s later years.
Mike Lawrence (trumpet) and Grachan Moncur (trombone) are really only present for ensemble thickness, as Joe is the emphasized soloist. The rhythm section includes Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, and Louis Hayes, who are all competent enough but hardly push the leader very far. Maybe this was the producer’s call, and maybe it’s the way the record was mixed (sax assigned to one channel, with a kiss of reverb), but The Kicker doesn’t kick that much, Joe’s acrobatic solos aside.
This is more like it, an accessible and substantial effort. The rhythm section from The Kicker appears on two tracks and then the trio of Don Friedman (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums) takes over. The material is in perfect balance: two Henderson originals, two Carter tunes (“R.J.” and “First Trip”, familiar to Miles and Herbie listeners), two standards, and a free jam. The tricky Kaper gem “Invitation” leads off, and Joe sounds like he’s either deigning or itching to play it. Either way, the tune fits his style very well. Joe’s original title track is an angular blues, and his “Waltz for Zweetie” capitalizes on the emotional possibilities of a waltz just as Bill Evans might, drifting with a melodic pierce that you can’t shake. Both compositions rank with his best. The free piece “The Bead Game” starts with a melodic tenor cue and veers into time-no-changes, where lots of chromatic lines and stop/start ideas take place. It’s like a pressure valve blowing off steam from the written pieces.
The bothersome thing about Tetragon, and it must be acknowledged, is that Henderson has moved beyond his Blue Note age of discovery into his Milestone age of style. He’s good enough to float through these tunes with automatic synonyms instead of tackling every harmonic obstacle. His trills and flurries become the easy way to skate through a bar or eight, depending. Not that the title track, for example, isn’t challenging, nor does “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” leave Joe short of fresh ideas. But he’s gone to another level here, having done the trench work and perhaps finding himself in need of a new challenge. Nevertheless, no fan can be without this album.
Pulled from the vaults and released in 1994, this live disc finds Henderson sitting in with the popular piano trio of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb at a Baltimore gig. The trio’s stylings - rote by this time, just a notch above background music - sound conservative underneath an aggressive Henderson, who chews up a selection of standards. Mix Sonny Rollins’ melodic momentum (think Village Vanguard) with Joe’s established bag and you wind up with deep-end solos like these on “Autumn Leaves” or “On Green Dolphin Street”. Henderson doesn’t mesh directly with the rhythm section; rather, they become a springboard for his lengthy turns, acknowledged then abandoned for long stretches. The trio makes no pretence of following Joe into his outer orbits, as they just keep plugging away at ground control. Kelly’s solos are anticlimactic in every instance; his block chording and shortsighted lines are a visa away from the tenor’s language. Yet the mismatch has a benefit in that it puts Henderson in very sharp relief, playing some American classics that never graced his own albums of the day. The sound isn’t pristine, though Joe’s heard to good advantage. Revelatory in a verité way.
Joe’s first dalliance in the age of electricity. Herbie Hancock alternates between electric and acoustic piano, Ron Carter does the same with bass, and Jack DeJohnette (drums) and Mike Lawrence (trumpet on a couple of tracks) complete the lineup. Song titles aside, it’s not a powerful or “angry” album at all, more of a murky dreamworld. The main advances are made by the title track and “Afro-Centric”, both of which electrify vamps that could have just as easily been done acoustically. Rather than hear “Power to the People” as pre-fusion, I actually hear it as futuristic hardbop. Furthermore, Henderson and Lawrence take sophisticated solos (no rote funk tootin’ here), and the rhythm trio never falls into any banalities, especially not with Jack breaking up the beats. The album also boasts the first recording of the lovely Henderson waltz “Black Narcissus”, one of my favorite jazz tunes of all time. The tenor holds long tones over a softly insistent bassline; the harmonic ascension in the second half of the form, along with an increase in melodic content, makes an elegant climax.
The rest of the tracks are a slighter bunch. Carter’s obtuse “Opus 1.5” receives some subtle playing while “Isotope” is dismissed with carefree in ‘n out solos, as if Joe and company think the tune is too easy to really bother with. (The awesome version on Inner Urge begs to differ.) “Lazy Afternoon” is rendered with light swing. All three of these tracks run just under five minutes, and none of them get very deep into anything in particular. Herbie plays some great stuff, but in places, he phones it in.
The closing “Foresight and Afterthought” is a rise-and-fall free improv for sax, bass, and drums. Part of the visceral effect is lost because the bass and drums are mixed into one stereo channel, which is never a good idea. For the rest of the album, Hancock sits in the opposite channel, which gives the album a spread-out balance, with the horns floating in the middle. Maybe this is why I refer to some of the music as a dreamworld. In any case, Power has its moments and should be sampled at some point.
The 2004 reissue brings together the following: six cuts that were part of the original LP (which had the subtitle If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem); three others that surfaced in Henderson’s complete Milestone box; and “Invitation”, which with “Gazelle” (not included here) wound up initially on the studio/live hybrid In Pursuit of Blackness. So we get a nearly complete Lighthouse program on this one disc, and the remastered sound improves on that of the 1994 box, not counting some overloaded spots in the original tapes.
This is Joe’s first proper live album. Trumpeter Woody Shaw adds a few sparks (and a few clams), and the rhythm section is George Cables (electric piano), Ron McClure (bass) and Lenny White (drums), with Tony Waters on percussion. Not exactly a prodding foundation, but solid enough for Joe to stand on and wail, and the smooth sound of Cables’ instrument disguises just how closely he follows Henderson. The setlist relies heavily on Blue Note numbers; “Recorda Me”, “Isotope”, “Blue Bossa”, and a triple dip into Mode For Joe form the bulk of it, with “Invitation” and an extreme “’Round Midnight” in the way of standards. Not one of the remakes has the charm of the original versions, although “A Shade of Jade” less manic than its 1966 counterpart, and it’s interesting to hear the variations on “Recorda Me”. “Caribbean Fire Dance” is sped up and compacted, while “Mode For Joe” has great solos but none of the nonchalance that graced its recorded debut. Henderson doesn’t sound like he’s necessarily outgrown these pieces, but his solos are all dispatched with deceptive ease. The acidic moments, as on a raucous “Isotope”, are fun but don’t sound very new.
Toward the end of the set comes “If You’re Not Part of the Solution”, in which McClure straps on an electric bass and the band pumps out a funky fusion groove. Lenny White makes more of an impact in the slick backbeats than he does with his competent swinging elsewhere, and Henderson hits the groove with sureness. Is this the new Joe, ready to dig into a contemporary beat just as easily as he swings his bop? Yep. A decent collection overall, nothing monumental.
This album circles in a holding pattern, uncertain of where to land. The first order of business is unspooling the remaining Lighthouse reels: “Invitation” (included in the 2004 Lighthouse reissue but not the original LP) and “Gazelle”, an interesting pseudo-fusion-swing piece with tricky meters and fine solos. The rest of the album comes from a studio date with new and old personnel: Pete Yellin on reeds, Curtis Fuller (!) on trombone, George Cables back at the electric piano, Stanley Clarke on acoustic bass, and Lenny White drumming. Their main offering is “Mind Over Matter”, a modal funk groove that resembles the music of Bitches Brew, not just in the bassline but in Yellin’s bass clarinet, White’s backbeats, and the do-watcha-wanna solos. Not a bad contemporary jam. The same studio lineup also revisits two older pieces, “A Shade of Jade” and “Recorda Me” (here retitled “No Me Esqueca”), both of which were recorded at the Lighthouse, and both of which are bettered in these studio versions. “Recorda” surges along on Clarke’s strong bass, and “Shade of Jade” is in its most approachable version yet.
Anyway, that’s what happens on this album. Making overall sense of it is another matter. The program looks forward and backward, to stage and studio, with varying personnel, and winds up nowhere in particular, in pursuit of, uh, what exactly? Just as “blackness” is ultimately indefinable, so is this album. Let’s just say Henderson (and producer Keepnews) wanted to put some old ideas to bed and move forward at the same time. In any event, the tracks are united by Henderson’s consistent horn.
Recorded in a Tokyo club with a local rhythm section, In Japan is one of the most energetic albums of Joe’s whole catalog. “’Round Midnight” serves as invocation, from the suspenseful opening theme to the comfortable swing that breaks out not long afterward. Henderson interprets this Monk classic as well as anybody, paying homage to the tune’s written brilliance yet also tilting it toward his own agenda. “Out ‘N’ In” has the exact same uptempo head as the reversed Blue Note title, but the underlying blues form is more clearly delineated. Joe is the only soloist on this nine-minute venture, and he tears it up. The rhythm team is more than able to reinforce his dissonant asides. (Hideo Ichikawa plays electric piano throughout the gig, and if there’s such thing as furious electric piano, here it is.) “Blue Bossa”, no less intense, has a solo that ought to convince anyone of Henderson’s resourcefulness. In any other program, it’d then be time for some respite, but no, “Junk Blues” arrives and jacks up the adrenaline even further to become Joe’s “Chasin’ the Trane”, for lack of a better comparison, full of free-association and a few familiar licks. The rhythm trio swings even harder for this jam, like the amp that goes to 11, and each gets a solo spot, during which the drive is not lessened a bit.
So there it is - something old, new, borrowed, and blue (but not in that order). Not since In ‘N’ Out has Henderson’s tenor sax been so ablaze. The 2000 remaster clears up some of the low-end mud and registers each of the instruments as well as it can. Jazz may or may not have died at some point in the ‘70s, depending on your informant, but it certainly wasn’t on August 4, 1971.
Joe’s first fusion album didn’t quite start that way. He began by cutting a few quartet tracks with George Cables, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, and it was only after a subsequent overdubbing session (guitar, synth, percussion, more reeds) that the music put on the fusion jacket. The quartet plays alone on the adventurous freebop of “Vis a Vis”, while the other four tracks are dressed up with extra instruments. “Terra Firma” sounds a lot like Miles’ groovescapes of the day - funky bass, stacked rhythms, ring modulated electric piano - although the performance is jazzier. I like the natural flow of this piece, and the flutes are a nice touch. The super cool “Foregone Conclusion” accumulates layers of riffs alongside a looming synth drone and doubled sax figures. “Black is the Color” is a rubato ballad with equal time given to tenor and soprano, and “Current Events” blends synth and sax into a dated fantasy.
Some artists lost their previous style in converting to fusion, but Henderson remains a commanding sax player. His improvisations still have sophisticated phrasing and sensitive touches, like his re-entry in the final minutes of “Terra Firma”, or all of “Black is the Color”. The upbeat agitations of “Vis a Vis” are another strong point. As for the overdubs, they don’t sound artificial, and the densest moments of “Terra Firma” and “Foregone Conclusion” still have natural dynamics. So for the most part, I rate the album as a success.
Continuing the musical trend of its predecessor, Multiple broadens the compositional field. DeJohnette’s “Bwaata” stands out for the lullaby melody and folksy rhythm; Henderson revels in the tune’s idyllic landscape and also has a few dangerous suggestions to make. “Song for Sinners” is altogether darker, a claustrophobic modal crevice (with subliminal vocal drones) that Joe bravely explores. Holland’s “Turned Around” does exactly that and dwells in a rhythmic realignment. “Me Among Others” breaks into orthodox swing under Larry Willis’ electric piano solo. The groove piece “Tress Cun Deo La” rambles a bit, yet Henderson’s vocal phonetics (at the beginning and end) and handclaps somehow make it work. “Dun-dun-dahhhhhh” he chants at the fade, and just for a minute there, I’m thinking this is very hip.
There aren’t so many overdubs this time out; it’s mainly just a few guitar tracks that are added, along with Henderson’s extra flute, soprano sax, and two vocal parts. Joe makes a colorful job of this album, which has a wider range than a lot of crossover efforts of the time. Hard to choose between this and Black is the Color.
Sleepy Latin fusion, with extra horns, flutes, and percussion. Joe had already utilized foreign rhythms ever since his first album, and Canyon Lady ups the ante. Luis Gasca’s arrangement of “Tres Palabras” winds up a poor man’s Sketches of Spain, though, sort of like cruise ship muzak. Melodramatic as the exposition might be, the track does get stronger and Henderson looses a broad-shouldered solo. The title track comes from the pen of pianist Mark Levine, and it creates a somnambulant vibe, periodically awoken by double-timed percussion. Levine also writes “All Things Considered”, where a Tyner-ish piano vamp and hypnotic bassline support Joe in a modal zone. Spacy keyboard introduces Henderson’s one original, “Las Palmas”, yet another swirling, bass-driven workout with a dark mode that recalls “El Barrio”. Henderson spreads himself out in these tunes, sometimes building to a state of controlled angst.
Canyon Lady is not the sort of album that sticks in your mind when you’re done listening to it, and it doesn’t expand much on what we’ve already learned from Henderson’s recent playing. The most seductive elements (the keyboard and bass hooks) tend to lose their impact by going on and on. And on. Yet the majority of it makes a good occasional listen, particularly for those with an ear for early-70s cross-pollination.
This is the most left field of Henderson’s albums, a multi-kulti suite devoted to the Four Elements. Prominent support comes from Alice Coltrane (piano, harp, tamboura, harmonium) and bassist Charlie Haden. Further instrumentation includes violin, flute, drums, small percussion, and perversely, some electronic effects on Joe’s sax. Also, a wee bit of non sequitur spoken word. Is Joe trying to tap into the spiritual with this witchy music? He’s definitely got a John Coltrane fixation on “Air”, which sounds very much like the opening movement of A Love Supreme, right down to the tenor phrasing. In fact, that whole track continues in the vein of Coltrane’s Impulse hymns, and with Trane’s widow playing on it, the homage is apparent. Elsewhere, the album makes a package tour of the world: drums dance, percussives shake and rattle, a harp plucks gently, a harmonium whirs away, a tamboura drones, a violin hops continents, and Haden grounds everything. Henderson allots much time to his chosen collaborators and becomes a little more austere than usual in his own playing.
In short, “Air” is a Coltrane prayer, “Water” a pitch-bending trance, “Fire” a festive dance, and “Earth” is slow funk, all draped in globetrotting textures (and even a hint of psychedelia). It falls short as a transcendent experience - I don’t think, “We’re now in contact with Mother Earth”; I think “Wow, droning strings and echo-treated sax over a funky backbeat, neat.” This one-off concept album takes advantage of the era’s open genre borders, even though the east-meets-west business was a few years old at this point. Pagan Boogie.
The story here is Joachim Kuhn, who not only plays acoustic piano in an age of Fenders, but whose playing almost rivals the intensity of McCoy Tyner, as far as Henderson albums go. There are still a few synth patches (hence the wide ranging overdub dates) and some reverb and echo tricks, but the music mainly focuses on Henderson, Kuhn, and a couple of different bass/drum teams. Given the chemistry between the players, one imagines that an unadorned quartet album would have ranked up there with Joe’s Blue Note classics. However, weird mixes and spacy effects aside, it’s still a decent LP on its own. (At present, it’s only available in the complete Henderson Milestone box. It deserves a reissue by itself.)
For one thing, I think this is the definitive version of the title track, synth waves and all. Henderson moves all over the melody, from high beams of light to lower caresses. The modernized “Good Morning Heartache” sounds great, too. The swinging head of “The Other Side of Right” paraphrases “In ‘n Out”, but for some reason, the reverberating mix dilutes the visceral sound the music undoubtedly had when it was played. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that half of the album is basically straight jazz with contemporary decoration.
The remaining tracks go in different directions. “Hindsight and Forethought” is two and a half minutes of free improv with keen piano and a nice transition in the middle that may or may not have come from studio post-production. “Power to the People” updates the 1969 groove piece from the album of the same name. The synth throbs at the beginning are a little robotic, but keep listening, because the rhythm eventually flares up and Kuhn takes an outstanding solo. Last and probably least is “Amoeba”, nothing more than Henderson riffing on tenor over percussion and a Moog bass vamp. It sounds cool, though.
I’m split on the synths and studio effects. At times, they aid the music, and at other times, they water it down. It’s as if the basic quartet was about to open the door to the world, when the producer came running up and said, “You’re not going out without a coat on, are you?”
Orrin Keepnews on his time with Henderson: “We made just about every kind of album, except a hit.” So how do you make a jazz crossover hit? Have funky keyboardist George Duke bring in a tune and some arrangements, add Ron Carter and Harvey Mason, toss in a pop cover, splash the basic tracks with formulaic overdubs (horns, rock guitar, synths), and let your saxophonist ride. A hit? Nope. The music is/was too complex to take off on radio, and Joe doesn’t pander in his playing. The only thing that stood a chance of crossing over was “My Cherie Amour”, and that had more to do with Stevie’s song than Joe’s advanced solo, for sure. So Black Miracle sits in the limbo of being too complex for pop fusion, and too compromised for straight jazzyness. A track like “Old Slippers” mixes Duke’s pop gifts with Henderson’s higher-league improvisations, and not a bit of it makes a lasting impression or stakes its claim on any artistic plot in particular. Joe plays well, and the pieces are superficially groovy, but so what?
An exception is the title track, where a slinky bass/keyboard figure is gradually cloaked in rhythms and horns to become an infectious gallop. Even the most bastardized projects can produce bright offspring, and it wouldn’t do for me to ignore the improbable success of this one piece.
Pairing Henderson and pianist Chick Corea is a great idea, and with Ron Carter and Billy Higgins in the anchor spots, eloquence is a given. Corea’s two contributions fit Henderson’s aesthetics like a glove: the waltzing title track makes a luxuriant cushion for Joe’s tenor voice, and “Blues For Liebestraum” places the soloists in a challenging maze. Carter also contributes a couple of tunes, the better of which is the “Keystone” 12-bar, where Higgins chatters away and the melody fits the leader well. Henderson’s own “Joe’s Bolero” moves into desolate territory of overblown sax, dramatic piano chords, and a pulsing rhythmic bed, and it stands slightly above the other tracks. A splendid album, worth looking for.
Henderson first led big band sessions in the ‘60s, although no recordings were made, so consider this a deferred document of a long-held concern. Participants include Lew Soloff, Jon Faddis, Freddie Hubbard, Craig Handy, Gary Smulyan, Robin Eubanks, Jimmy Knepper, Chick Corea, Ronnie Mathews, Chris McBride, Joe Chambers, and Lewis Nash. Hell, it’s an A-list directory in the credits.
Seven of the nine tracks are original classics, and the other two are standards (“Without a Song”, “Chelsea Bridge”) that Joe had visited before. Henderson’s arrangements extend the harmonic implications of his original tunes and provide complex interplay underneath the solos. The scores also benefit the outside pieces: “Without a Song” gains a lot of cheer from the shout choruses, while Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” moves from a dignified entrance into crisscrossing, polyrhythmic embellishments.
Slide Hampton’s arrangements of two tunes (“Inner Urge” and “Serenity”) take more of a “re-composition” approach, augmenting the pieces with unrelated fanfares and interludes of blaring trumpets, etcetera, after which the basic quartet improvises by themselves. The Hampton scripts are a little too theatrical, in my opinion. Michael Philip Mossman redoes “Recordame” with the same blaring trumpet business, but frankly, I prefer the small band revamp that Joe had done back on his Blackness album. Bob Belden scores “Black Narcissus” and doesn’t tread on its inherent beauty. A song so brilliant is hard to screw up, anyway.
One hears nice solos from Hubbard, Corea, and a couple of other gents, though Henderson is the spotlit CEO, and he does well against the expanded backgrounds. His youthful power is absent, but so are the autopilot licks that occasionally littered his playing. The end result is a sophisticated rejuvenation.
It seems that ‘90s Verve (and before and beyond) was always market-conscious, pushing albums that had a saleable, blurb-worthy hook or concept - Nick Payton Acid-Jazzes Armstrong or Herbie Plays Duran Duran or what have you. Joe Henderson duly delivered Lush Life (1991) and So Near So Far (1992), tributes to Billy Strayhorn and Miles Davis that just happened, in their sincerity, to be very fine works. A less compelling nod to Jobim followed, as did the big band album. Then comes this umpteenth version of the Gershwin classic, itself overdone and - when you think of Miles and Gil, for one - not to be outdone. (In the liner credits, Verve plugs some other label-owned versions, like Louis and Ella, should this ‘un not do ya.) Joe arranges the material to his own small-band suiting, with John Scofield, Tommy Flanagan, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette amongst the deliverymen. And a couple of singers as well - Sting and Chaka Khan. Did Joe already have their phone numbers?
Don’t panic; this is mainly an instrumental album, either in small vignettes (the beautiful duet of tenor and classical guitar in “Honeyman”) or in septet swing, like “My Man’s Gone Now” or “Oh Where’s My Bess”. “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’”, after the ditzy head, revives the two-chord vamp of “Mode For Joe”, a great groove that inspires Henderson and Scofield. “Bess You Is My Woman Now” is a tender conversation between Joe and pianist Flanagan. Vibist Stefon Harris and trombonist Conrad Herwig add spice to various tracks. In slimmed-down suite form, the majority of this music justifies itself, and it provides a casual alternative to the usual pomp and circumstance afforded the Gershwin opera.
The two vocal cuts breach the defenses like Avon ladies at a baptism. Chaka Khan turns the “Summertime” lullaby into a soul audition, and that would be fine if it were on one of her own albums. I think her presence was pretty much intended to give Verve another name to put on the CD sticker; meanwhile, Scofield’s shimmery guitar creates a sweltering atmosphere behind her. Later, Sting shows up to affect a somewhat racist patois for “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, that swinging atheistic anthem. Sting loves his jazz, and it was surely an honor for him to accept this gig, but the vocal doesn’t do him or the album any favors. When, by the way, is Sting going to ditch the cameos and make his own standards record? Maybe when his record label/management gives him the green light.
Anyway, Henderson’s Porgy and Bess is a solid one, not a major entry, though. It would be his last album as a leader.