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Friday, October 13, 2006

Recorda Joe

It might seem natural to put Joe Henderson in a class with John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophonists with sounds that can have warmth, melody or edge and can push the limits of a tune), but avid Henderson-admirers rightly put him in a class by himself. Even while his tone has a roughness to it, the center of that sound is actually quite full and warm. The Milestone Profiles: Joe Henderson compilation not only collects some notable performances from the late '60s through the mid-'70s but also shares (in its liner notes) praise from other saxophone giants today that helps articulate Henderson's musical personality.

Dave Liebman, in his essay, "
The Compositional Style of Joe Henderson," outlines the saxophonist's singularity from a technical perspective:
Joe took the tenor sax elsewhere technically in areas such as his use of a unique set of expressive devices, unending variations of articulations, fast arpeggios, trills and the like, a looseness of rhythm that defied the bar line, his own personal way of using the altissimo (high) register of the horn and a tone that could go from liquid to coarse in a beat.
Chris Potter, who always gives Henderson his due when asked about his influences, often points out how intelligent his solos were... and how he never needed to "deal in volume." In a DownBeat Blindfold Test, he said: "He seems like such a wise gnome, a short guy sort of hunched over, and he plays quietly and makes everyone listen. That's part of his mystique, and it's the vibe all the great musicians give out."

The compilation's opener, "Mamacita" (from 1967's The Kicker), is the quintessential Henderson tune: bluesy but modern chord changes, a singing yet virile melody and it can't help but groove. It has the aura of a '60s Blue Note boogaloo (not an unfamiliar setting for Henderson, having appeared on some important Lee Morgan dates of this nature), but Henderson purposefully steers clear of cliches in his solo and plays around the backing horn arrangements. It's unfortunate that the tune is so brief. "The Bead Game" is an intriguing listen for how the players interact: interplay is certainly not forgotten, but there is more of a sense of a "chase," four players shifting alongside one another in a kind of angular, high-octane fugue. Don Friedman provides some rather oblique harmony in erratic jabs. Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette are a bit closer in their execution with some jittery, textured lines.

The album also features Henderson in settings with electric piano, accenting the deep, warm shades of his tenor sound. "Black Narcissus" is lovely -- a quartet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. The saxophonist's tone sheds its rough shell for some moments on this tune as Hancock's keyboard floats eerily. Henderson's theme-and-variations MO is more pronounced on "Gazelle" over its funky '70s electric keyboard/bass/drums band, backed in parts by a horn section. The Kenny Dorham classic, "Blue Bossa," is instantly recognizable but Henderson's approach to this tune has clearly gone through worlds of change since it debuted on Page One (his maiden voyage on Blue Note). He's quick on his feet here, leaping feet-first into some incredibly clean, fast runs, and George Cables's electric piano comping complements Henderson well. Woody Shaw is not at his strongest here but is still makes use of his beautifully dark, melodic sound. And on the nine-minute version of "Canyon Lady," you become aware of just how much space Henderson used to let his statements breathe.

In a recent article by Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press, Bennie Maupin mentions an early association with Henderson when both of them were students of Larry Teal at the Teal School of Music. His remarks touch on that "mystique" mentioned earlier:
In the late '50s, [Maupin] often practiced with Henderson [...] Henderson's skittering rhythmic phrasing and centered tone (a Teal trademark) left a clear mark on Maupin.

"You'd go to his apartment, and he had nothing but a mattress, ironing board and a few chairs," says Maupin. "It was like he had a secret and never shared it."
In his career of over three decades, Henderson shared plenty of his secrets, though it takes some listening to define them precisely. This new compilation is a good place to start for those interested in discovering his creative post-Blue Note work.

Buy Milestone Profiles: Joe Henderson

Also, read an interview with Joe Henderson by Mel Martin from 1991.


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