Thursday, May 29, 2014

Joe Henderson - [Still] Revelatory

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


For nearly thirty years, Henderson has possessed his own sound and has developed his own angles on swing, melody, timbre and harmony, while constantly expanding his own skill at playing in uncommon meters and rhythms. In his playing you hear an imposing variety of harmonic, rhythmic and melodic choices; you also hear his personal appropriation of the technical victories for his instrument achieved by men such as Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Warne Marsh, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Griffin and John Coltrane.

His, then, is a style informed by enormous sophistication, not limited by insufficient study or dependence on eccentric clichés brought into action for the purpose of masking the lack of detailed authority. In this tenor playing there's a relaxation in face of options that stretch from Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker to all of the substantial innovations since. So the music of Joe Henderson contains all of the components that make jazz so unique and so influential woven together with the sort of feeling, imagination, soul and technical authority that do the art proud.
- Stanley Crouch, Jazz author and critic

In connection with Joe Henderson’s music, “revelatory” has as it’s meaning so much that is eloquent, expressive and significant that it is difficult to understand how often it is often overlooked, let alone, taken for granted by Jazz fans in general.

Names such as Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane are often mentioned as great tenor saxophonists, but Joe Henderson’s name is rarely among them.

It should be.

Joe’s sound and approach to improvisation are as distinctive and unique as any of the great tenor masters and his influence on generations of Jazz musicians has been huge.

Take for example this assessment of Joe’s significance by guitarist John Scofield:

"Joe Henderson is the essence of jazz ….He embodies musically all the different elements that came together in his generation: hard-bop masterfulness plus the avant-garde. He's a great bopper like Hank Mobley or Sonny Stitt, but he also plays out. He can take it far harmonically, but still with roots. He's a great blues player, a great ballads player. He has one of the most beautiful tones and can set as pretty as Pres or Stan Getz. He's got unbeliev­able time. He can float, but he can also dig in. He can put the music wherever he wants it. He's got his own vocabu­lary, his own phrases he plays all dif­ferent ways, like all the great jazz players. He plays songs in his improv­isations. He'll play a blues shout like something that would come from Joe Turner, next to some of the fastest, outest, most angular, atonal music you've ever heard. Who's playing bet­ter on any instrument, more interest­ingly, more cutting edge yet complete­ly with roots than Joe Henderson? He's my role model in jazz."


And Joe is also no secret to the tenor saxophonists who evolved under his influence in the generation following his such as Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis.

"Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter emerged at the same time with their own sounds and rhythms and tunes. They inspired me as a young player …. He's always had his own voice. He's developed his own concepts with the inspirations of the people he dug but without copying them. I hear Joe in other tenor players. I hear not only phrases copped from Joe, but lately I hear younger cats trying to cop his sound. That's who you are as a player: your sound. It's one thing to learn from someone, but to copy his sound is strange. Joe's solo development live is a real journey — and you can't cop that! He's on an adventure whenever he plays."  - Joe Lovano

"Joe Henderson is one of the most influential saxophone players of the 20th century …. I learned all the solos on Mode for Joe and the records he did with McCoy Tyner, a lot of the stuff he's on, like The Prison­er. He was one of the few saxophone players who could really play what I call the modern music, that really came from the bebop tradition but extended the harmonic tradition fur­ther. There's a small group of guys in that pantheon: Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Warne Marsh, Lucky Thompson, Sonny and Ornette, and Joe Hen. He's an amazing musician. I'm really jaded. I don't really go to the clubs anymore. There's not really anything I want to hear — except when Joe's in town. And when Joe's in town, I'm there every night!"
 – Branford Marsalis

I got to know Joe a bit after the time of his interview with Michael Bourne for Downbeat [March, 1992; see below]. He had just finished the Lush Life [Verve/Polygram 314 511 779-2] tribute to Bill Strayhorn and was working on the charts that would appear a few years later on the Joe Henderson Big Band CD [Verve/Polygram 314 533 451-2].


He and I lived on either side of Divisadero Street in central San Francisco. Divisadero is a north-south traffic throughway  that cuts through several neighborhoods, including Lower HaightAlamo SquarePacific Heights, and the Marina and offers a kaleidoscopic mix of dining, grocery, and merchant fronts that serve each neighborhood.

The first time we met, Joe was sitting in a barbecue ribs place on Divisadero called The Brothers and while I waited for my take-out order I spotted him sitting quietly in a window seat reading some music scoring sheets.

For years, Joe wore a straw-hat version of Lester Young’s pork-pie hat and big suspenders that adorned shirts with thick, colorful stripes. This garb along with his salt and pepper beard was a dead give-away so I sauntered up to him and said: “You’re Kenny Dorham aren’t you?"  [Joe was close friends with trumpeter and composer Dorham and made his recording debut on Kenny’s Una Mas Blue Note LP.]

He looked up from his scores with a momentary, puzzled look that quickly turned into a smile once he saw that I was wearing one too.

Motioning me to sit down at the table next to him he asked: “And what would you know about Kenny Dorham?”

That conversation in various forms took on a life of its own for a number of years in a variety of Divisadero locations ranging from coffee shops to pizzerias.

During this period, Joe often talked about his big band disc which was issued on Verve in 1996 [314 533 451-2].

I didn’t see him very much after the Joe Henderson Big Band CD was released as by then I had moved to the West Portal area of the city.

Joe died in 2001 at the much-too-young-age of sixty-four [64].

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember Joe on these pages with this interview which is followed by a video playlist of Joe’s original compositions and/or solos by Joe in other settings.


© -Michael Bourne/Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

He's not Pres-like or Bird-like, not 'Trane-ish or Newk-ish. None of the stylistic adjec­tives so convenient for critics work for tenor saxist Joe Henderson. It's evident he's listened to the greats: to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins — to them and all the others he's enjoyed. But he doesn't play like them, doesn't sound like them. Joe Henderson is a master, and, like the greats, unique.

When he came along in the '60s, jazz was happening every which way, from mainstream and avant-garde to blues, rock and then some, and everything that was happening he played. Henderson's saxo­phone became a Triton's horn and trans­formed the music, whatever the style, whatever the groove, into himself. And he's no different (or, really, always different) today. There's no "typical" Joe Henderson album, and every solo is, like the soloist, original and unusual, thoughtful and always from the heart.

"I think playing the saxophone is what I'm supposed to be doing on this planet," says Joe Henderson. "We all have to do some­thing. I play the saxo­phone. It's the best way I know that I can     make    the largest number of people happy and get for myself the largest amount of happiness."

Joe was born April 24, 1937, in LimaOhio. When he was nine he was tested for musical aptitude. "I wanted to play drums. I'd be making drums out of my mother's pie pans. But they said I'd gotten a high enough score that I could play anything, and they gave me a saxophone. It was a C melody. I played that about six months and went to the tenor. I was kind of born on the tenor." Even before he played, Joe was fasci­nated by his brother's jazz records. "I lis­tened to Lester Young, Flip Phillips, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, all the people associ­ated with Jazz at the Philharmonic.
This stuff went into my ears early on, so when I started to play the saxophone I had in my mind an idea of how that instrument was supposed to sound. I also heard the rhythm-and-blues saxophone players when they came through my hometown."

Soon he was playing dances and learn­ing melodies with his friends. "I think of playing music on the bandstand like an actor relates to a role. I've always wanted to be the best inter­preter the world has ever seen. Where a preco­cious youngster gets an idea like that is beyond me, but somehow improv­isation set in on me pretty early,

probably before I knew what improvisation was, really. I've always tried to re-create melodies even better than the composers who wrote them. I've always tried to come up with something that never even occurred to them. This is the challenge: not to rearrange the intentions of the composers but to stay within the parameters of what the composers have in mind and be creative and imaginative and meaningful."
One melody that's become almost as much Henderson's as the composer's is Ask Me Now by Thelonious Monk. He's recorded it often, each performance an odyssey of sounds and feelings.

"I play it 75 percent of the time because I like it and the other 25 percent because it's demanded that I play it. I sometimes have to play it twice a night, even three times. That tune just laid around for a while. Monk did an incredible job on it, but other than Monk I don't think I heard anyone play it before I recorded it. It's a great tune, very simple. There are some melodies that just stand by themselves. Gershwin was that kind of writer. You don't even have to improvise. You don't have to do anything but play the melody and people will be pleased. One of the songs like that is Lush Life. That's for me the most beautiful tune ever written. It's even more profound knowing that Hilly Strayhorn wrote it, words and music, when he was 17 or 18. How does an 18-year-old arrive at that point of feeling, that depth'"


Lush Life is the title song of Hender­son's new album of Strayhorn's music. "Musicians have to plant some trees—and replant some trees to extend the life of these good things. Billy Strayhorn was one of the people whose talent should be known. Duke Ellington knew about him, so that says something. There are still a lot of peo­ple who haven't heard Strayhorn's music,  but if I can do something to enable them to become aware of Strayhorn's genius. I'd feel great about that."

Lush Life is the first of several projects he'll record for Verve. Don Sickler worked with Henderson selecting and arranging some of Strayhorn's classics and, with Polygram Jazz VP Richard Seidel, pro­duced the album. Henderson plays Lush Life alone, and, on the other songs he's joined for duets to quintets by four of the brightest young players around, pianist Stephen Scott, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Gregory Hutchinson, and trum­peter Wynton Marsalis. That the interplay of generations is respectful, inspirational and affectionate is obvious.

"I think this was part of it, to present some of the youngsters with one of the more established voices. This is the natural way that it happens. This is the way it hap­pened for me. I wouldn't have met the peo­ple I met if it hadn't been for Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, peo­ple I've been on the bandstand with. They introduced me to their audience. We have to do things like this. When older musicians like me find people who can continue the tradition, we have to create ways to bring these people to the fore."

Henderson came to the fore in the '60s. He'd studied for a year at Kentucky State, then four years at Wayne State in Detroit, where he often gigged alongside Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris, Hugh Lawson and Donald Byrd. He was drafted in 1960 and played bass in a military show that traveled the world. While touring in 1961, he met and played with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke in Paris. Once he was dis­charged in 1962, he settled in New York, where so many of his friends from Detroit were already regulars, and where trum­peter Kenny Dorham became a brother.

"Kenny Dorham was one of the most important creators in New York, and he's damn near a name you don't hear any­more. That's a shame. How can you over­look a diamond in the rough like him? There haven't been that many people who have that much on the ball creatively as Kenny Dorham."

Henderson's first professional record­ing was Dorham's album Una Mas, the first of many albums he recorded through the '60s as a sideman or a leader for Blue Note. This was the classic time of Blue Note, and what's most remarkable is the variety of music Henderson played, from the grooves of Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder to the avant-garde sounds of Andrew Hill's Point of Departure. Whatever was happening musically, Joe Henderson was a natural.

"That's part of what I wanted to do early on — be the best interpreter I could pos­sibly be. I wanted to interpret Andrew Hill's music better than he could write it, the same with Duke Pearson and Horace Silver. I'd study and try to find ways of being imagina­tive and interesting for this music without changing the music around. I didn't want to make Horace Silver's music different from what he had in mind. I wanted to make it even more of what he had in mind."

He joined the Horace Silver band for several years and fronted a big band with
Kenny Dorham — music he'll re-create and record this year at Lincoln Center. He worked with Blood, Sweat and Tears for a minute in 1969, but quit to work with Miles Davis.

"Miles, Wayne Shorter and I were the only constants in the band. I never knew who was going to show up. There'd be a different drummer every night—Tony Williams, Jack De Johnette, Billy Cobham. Ron Carter would play one night, next night Miroslav Vitous or Eddie Gomez. Chick Corea would play one night, next night Herbie Hancock. It never settled. We played all around but never recorded. This was previous to everyone having Walkman recorders. Miles had a great sense of humor. I couldn't stop laughing. I'd be on the bandstand and I'd remember some­thing he said in the car to the gig, and right in the middle of a phrase I'd crack up!"

Henderson's worked more and more as a leader ever since, and recorded many albums, like Lush Life, with particular ideals. He recorded "concept" albums like The Elements with Alice Coltrane and was among the first to experiment with the new sounds of synthesizers. He composed tunes like Power to the People with a more social point of view. "I got politically involved in a musical way. Especially in the '60s, when people were trying to effect a cure for the ills that have beset this country for such a long time, I thought I'd use the music to convey some of my thoughts. I'd think of a title like Black Narcissus, and then put the music together. I'd try to create a nice melody, but at the same time, when people heard it on the radio, a title like Afro-Centric or Power to the People made a statement."

Words have always inspired Joe Hen­derson. "I try to create ideas in a musical way the same as writers try to create images with words. I use the mechanics of writing in playing solos. I use quotations. I use com­mas, semicolons. Pepper Adams turned me on to a writer, Henry Robinson. He wrote a sentence that spanned three or four pages before the period came. And it wasn't a stream of consciousness that went on and on and on. He was stopping, pausing in places with hyphens, brackets around things. He kept moving from left to right with this thought. I can remember in Detroit trying to do that, trying to play the longest meaningful phrase that I could pos­sibly play before I took the obvious breath."


Henderson names Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Herman Hesse and the Bible among his favorites. "I think the creative faculties are the same whether you're a musician, a writer, a painter. I can appre­ciate a painter as if he were a musician playing a phrase with a stroke, the way he'll match two colors together the same as I'll match two tones together."

He tells a story uniquely as a soloist and composer, and he's inspired many musicians through the years. But what sometimes bothers Henderson is when oth­ers imitate his strokes and his colors, but don't name the source. He heard a popular tenor saxist a while ago and was staggered. "I heard eight bars at a time that I know I worked out. I can tell you when I worked the music out. I can show you the music when I was putting it together. But when guys like this do an interview they don't acknowledge me. I'm not about to be bitter about this, but I've always felt good about acknowledging people who've had some­thing to do with what I'm about. I've played the ideas of other people—Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, Stan Getz — and I mention these guys whenever I do an interview. But there are players who are putting stuff out as if it's their music and they didn't create it. I did."

He's nonetheless happy these days and amused about some of the excitement about Lush Life, that the new album, like every new album from Joe Henderson, feels like a comeback. "I have by no means vanished from the scene. I've never stopped playing. I'm very much at home in the trenches. I'm right out there on the front line. That's where I exist. I've been inspired joining the family at Polygram in a way I haven't been inspired in a long time. I'm gonna get busy and do what I'm supposed to do."


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