Joe Henderson always had the respect of fellow musicians and hardcore jazz fanatics, but for a long time it seemed the closest he'd get to fame was his brief stint in Blood, Sweat & Tears (years later he reminisced, in one of my favorite interviews, about how that short period was when sax companies wanted his endorsement and gave him free horns). Hardly fair considering that he spent a quarter century ranked among the top three tenor saxophonists alive, along with Rollins and Shorter. Then, almost miraculously, Verve put together a masterful production/promotion campaign that made him more famous in his last decade than he'd ever been before. Alas, emphysema took him at age 64, but he'd managed to leave an impressive legacy with nary a misstep -- he never made a bad album, and his appearance on anyone else's album was always a mark of quality. (Why is Ptah, the El Daoud Alice Coltrane's best album? At least partly because Joe's on it.) Here are my favorites, in chronological order (dates in parentheses are recording dates).
In 'n Out (Blue Note, 4/10/64) Kenny Dorham, McCoy Tyner, Richard Davis, Elvin Jones
Not that Henderson's first two albums, also on Blue Note, weren't good, but the increase in risk-taking and intensity of improvisation on this 1964 session, and the new rhythm section, paid great dividends, and the title track showed Henderson taking his composing to a new level and style.
Inner Urge (Blue Note, 11/30/64) McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, Elvin Jones
Not just the greatest Joe Henderson album, but one of the greatest quartet albums in the history of jazz. The title track, penned by Joe, is a modal masterpiece that will blow your mind, and of course for that style there was no better pianist than Tyner. "Isotope," another Henderson original, twists the blues into new shapes. He'd done a fair amount of Latin jazz playing and composing before "El Barrio," his last original here, but it sounded a little rinky-dink after this improvisation on two chords -- and having Jones as the drummer certainly helped power it up. A worthy Duke Pearson tune and an imaginative treatment of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" round out the album.
Mode for Joe (Blue Note, 1/27/66) Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, Joe Chambers
A bit over a year later, Henderson's superb work had earned him an all-star septet recording. Henderson's "A Shade of Jade" would be a favorite he'd return to in later years, always with fine results; Walton and Morgan contribute equally fine tunes on Joe's last Blue Note LP for nearly two decades. While Joe doesn't follow the free jazz/"New Thing" road some of his peers were going down at this point, some of his improvisations show that he'd incorporated some of that freedom and love of intense timbre inflections into his playing style.
In Pursuit of Blackness/Black Is the Color (Milestone) see below for details
It looks like I'm cheating and putting two albums into one slot, but when Fantasy put these on CD, this was how they were issued, and who am I to doubt their wisdom? Plus, even two LPs leaves his '70s work underrepresented. It was a period that probably drives jazz purists crazy: they know they're supposed to hate electric instruments and overdubbing, and probably funky vamps as well, but when they're done this creatively, with Joe playing at such a high level, how can they justify not listening? There are a couple of live tracks from September 1970 with Woody Shaw, George Cables on electric piano, Ron McClure (electric and acoustic bass), Lenny White, and Tony Waters, with three envelope-pushing May 12, 1971 studio tracks (including a swinging uptempo remake of "A Shade of Jade") with Curtis Fuller, Pete Yellin, Cables, White, and Stanley Clarke completing In Pursuit of Blackness in a way that at times suggests that Joe had taken some cues from Bitches Brew. Black Is the Color comes from March and April 1972 studio sessions, with a core quartet of Henderson, Cables (mostly electric), Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette augmented through overdubbing at various times by electric guitarist George Wadenius (who clearly loves his wah-wah pedal), synthesizer player David Horowitz, Ron Carter on electric bass, DeJohnette switching to electric piano for the title track while Cables plays acoustic, and Airto and Ralph McDonald on percussion. That this is fusion is undeniable, but it's more intricately arranged and less flashy than that genre often was. The grooves are often super-funky, though, including the amazing "Foregone Conclusion," my favorite piece of electric jazz not by Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock.
If I really wanted to cheat, I'd include Joe Henderson: The Milestone Years, an eight-CD box that comprehensively collects his 1967-76 recordings as a leader for that label and throws in some sideman work. As I write this, there are four copies available used on Amazon for under $47, which even with shipping comes to less than $50. If that got you just the first four CDs of the set, it would still be well worth paying.
The State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard, vols. 1-2 (Blue Note, 11/14-16/85) Ron Carter, Al Foster
I was on the bubble about this one (thinking about including a third '70s album), since the next two I'm recommending are the same era and same piano-less trio format, but better. Then I saw that iTunes has the two-CD set for $9.99, which is too great a bargain to resist. (The idea to record Joe in this configuration was Stanley Crouch's, so I forgive him a little for his anti-avant garde screeds and blatant Marsalis-boosting hype of the next decade.) It's a bit light on Henderson tunes, with just three, as many as by Thelonious Monk (Crouch and producer Michael Cuscuna suggested the tunes), and rather mellow, but it is nice to hear virtuosi who don't feel the need to overpower listeners.
An Evening with Joe Henderson (Red, live 7/9/87) Charlie Haden, Al Foster
Rumor has it that this and the following album, both on the Italian label Red, were what inspired Verve to sign Joe. Their value is much more than historical, however; having worked in the trio format for a while by this point, he'd achieved even greater heights in the format, and was feeling freer in it as well. Half of the four tracks on Evening were also on State, but get much more extensive -- and, dare I say it, less self-conscious -- treatments here. There are days when this is my second-favorite Henderson album.
The Standard Joe (Red, 3/26/91) Rufus Reid, Al Foster
A New York studio session, this is a bit misleadingly titled; this is no show-tune extravaganza. Yes, there are two epic takes of "Body and Soul," and Monk's "'Round Midnight" and Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" became standards, but Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa" from Joe's 1963 debut and Henderson's "Inner Urge" and "Blues in F (In'n Out)" are here as well, with "Inner Urge" as spectacular as ever.
Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Verve, 9/91) Wynton Marsalis, Stephen Scott, Christian McBride, Gregory Hutchinson
Only three of the ten tracks have the full quintet (they are also the only three with Marsalis), and "Lush Life" closes the album brilliantly in a solo sax rendition. There's one quartet track, one each by two trio lineups, and Joe duets once with each rhythm section member. So although this heavily promoted album, which made Henderson not just a well-respected jazzman but a genuine star after nearly three decades of recording, is a typical Verve production -- high-concept, varied mixing in a younger star -- it achieves its variety in a very organic way rather than bungeeing the "names" into an incoherent mess, as sometimes happened. And, of greatest importance, Henderson's fully energized for the uptempo tracks and makes the most of the material on the many ballads.
So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) (Verve, 10/12-14/92) John Scofield, Dave Holland, Al Foster
Henderson had a brief, undocumented period with Miles Davis, so this tribute album after Davis's death was a sincere project; at the time, Joe told me, "It gave me a chance to complete a suggestion that [Davis] had made shortly after I had left the band. We were down [at the Village Vanguard] listening to George Benson. He came up to me and said, 'Hey Joe Henderson, whyn't you write a date for me.' [said in an excellent imitation of Miles's trademark raspy whisper] After I picked myself up off the floor...c'mon, man. 'No, I'm serious, whyn't you put it together for me and call me when you've got the music?' And I guess I was just, at that time, so into trying to perfect writing for the big band Kenny Dorham and I had, and I was doing quintet/quartet/sextet dates putting together my own recording sessions, I never got around to doing that. So working on this project gave me the chance to kind of complete something that I had regretted not having done for a long time. It wasn't the one he had in mind, but at least in my mind I do have a sense of completing this request." The program largely focuses on pre-fusion Davis as composer, and it's interesting hearing them and Joe with a guitar/bass/drums rhythm team. As on Joe's great trio albums, the drummer is the simpatico Al Foster, who, like everyone in this quartet, played with Miles. This is the least-produced, most spontaneous-sounding, and thus best of Joe's Verve dates.
Big Band (Verve, 3/16 & 6/24-26/92) soloists: Joe, Freddie Hubbard, Nicholas Payton, Chick Corea, Christian McBride, Helio Alves
Verve didn't seem committed to this album, leaving it in the can for four years, but it was a project near and dear to Joe's heart. All but two of the nine tracks are familiar Henderson compositions; he did over half of the arrangements himself (Slide Hampton contributed two, Bob Belden one-and-a-half, and Mike Mossman one); he'd started out in school and military big bands, and had (as mentioned above) a big band with Dorham in his New York days. I'm not fond of Hampton's brassy intro for "Inner Urge" or his unserene "Serenity," but Belden's take on "Black Narcissus" is nicely limber. Henderson is of course the featured soloist on every track, and as the list above shows, the other soloists are top-notch as well. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.