Joe Henderson is one of those musicians that didn’t gain huge recognition from the casual jazz lover, but every jazz musician and fanatic will sing his praises for days. He had awesome command of the tenor saxophone, a unique sound and harmonic conception, and composed some classics of the jazz idiom, including “Recorda Me” (which he wrote at 14 years old!), “Inner Urge” and “The Kicker.” He was equally at home playing hard bop and more avant garde music, and had a real way with a ballad.
The amazing thing to me about Henderson is that from his very first recorded performances he already had a mature, fully-formed conception that didn’t change much over the next 40 years. And that’s not to say that he was stagnant. If anything he was way ahead of his time and only after decades did the rest of the world catch up and catch on.
Henderson was born in Ohio and came up through the Detroit jazz scene. While in college and after in the Army, he had the chance to play with luminaries like Kenny Clarke, Barry Harris, Donald Byrd and Kenny Drew. Upon his discharge from the service, he moved to New York and started a long and fruitful association with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, which led to Henderson’s signing with Blue Note Records. This kept him very busy, and between 1963-1968 he recorded 30 albums for the storied label, both as a leader and a sideman for Dorham, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Horace Silver and Lee Morgan (see yesterday’s SOTD).
From the late-’60s to the mid-’80s Henderson recorded many great albums for many different labels, but mostly toiled away under the radar. In 1986 he returned to Blue Note and released “State of the Tenor,” an album that lives up to it’s lofty name. Paired only with Ron Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums, Henderson roars, whispers, cries and wails through two CDs worth of standards and originals. Not since Sonny Rollins’ live trio recordings had someone so masterfully embodied all that the sax trio could be.
Signed to Verve Records in the ’90s, Henderson achieve his most prominent success with a string of tribute albums to Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis and Antonio Carlos Jobim. These three records remain some of the most compelling jazz released during that era, despite being tributes. Joe was able to put his own stamp on the material, as you’ll hear from this wonderful duo recording of Strayhorn’s “Ishfahan,” a song originally written for alto sax player Johnny Hodges:
That’s Joe with bassist Christian McBride. An incredible performance by two greats. As a bonus, here’s a Blue Note all-star band playing Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. Although the soundman didn’t turn on Joe’s mic until after he started his solo, this is classic Henderson. The solo sees him taking melodic phrases, repeating them, turning them upside down and inside out. It’s magic! Hubbard ain’t bad, either.
Tomorrow we’ll turn our attention to one of today’s stars, trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as “the next generation of Seattle jazz.” Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.