I saw Joe Henderson play in January 1997, at Town Hall in New York. The show was part of a package tour put together by Verve Records—his trio, which at that point featured George Mraz on bass and Al Foster on drums, was on between Charlie Haden‘s Quartet West and an all-star-ish band of musicians who’d played on the soundtrack to the Robert Altman movie Kansas City.

Like a fool, I left the show before the Kansas City band took the stage. But I did get to see Haden’s group and Henderson’s trio, and that was more than enough superb music for one night. At that point, I wasn’t familiar with Henderson’s records. I still haven’t heard any of his Verve releases, because, to be honest, they all seemed like corny bullshit. So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles)? Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn? Double Rainbow: The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim? Just typing those titles makes my stomach ache. Tribute albums are the single worst thing about jazz. Whether it’s a way of introducing a new performer ([Young Guy] Plays the Music of [Dead Guy]) or some past-it old fuck sleepwalking through a session of songs identified with some other old fuck, they’re a terrible idea, but I guess they sell, because labels big and small keep commissioning them. It’s bad for jazz as an art form—who asks painters to re-paint their own versions of the Mona Lisa? who asks playwrights to hammer out their own version of Hamlet, with a new soliloquy?—reinforcing conservatism and hammering home the message that the music was at its best in the ’40s, ’50s and early to mid ’60s. You know, before electricity.

But anyway, Joe Henderson. My memories of his performance are, unsurprisingly, vague. He seemed tall, and thin, standing very still at the microphone and murmuring his way through a string of tunes, none of which I recognized. At that point, my knowledge of jazz was extremely limited (many would argue it still is)—I’d listened to a lot of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, a bunch of Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, some Sonny Rollins, and a fistful of noisier stuff—Albert Ayler, Borbetomagus, Last Exit. I might have heard an Art Blakey album or two. And I hadn’t seen more than one or two live jazz performances before Pharoah Sanders at Iridium in 1995. So I was in a position to embrace the music not as a serious of references to things I’d already heard (like the tribute albums Henderson was releasing at the time) but as something brand new. And I found it quite beautiful.

Henderson’s saxophone style was restrained, but not minimalist. He was willing to squeal at the top of the tenor saxophone’s range, and growl at the bottom; he played awkward-seeming, harsh phrases and extraordinarily smoothly flowing, beautiful ones. Mraz and Foster kept up a gentle, supple swing behind him. I was fascinated by the way they made their way through the tunes; it was a completely different experience than listening to a jazz album. And it was much more relaxed and swinging than the Sanders show two years earlier, which had gotten thunderous and shouty at times.

In 2011, I have seven Joe Henderson albums in my iPod—the five he released on Blue Note between 1963 and 1966, 1973’s The Elements, and 1985’s two-CD set The State of the Tenor, plus a dozen or so albums on which he was a sideman, like Alice Coltrane‘s Ptah, the El Daoud, McCoy Tyner‘s The Real McCoy, Lee Morgan‘s The Sidewinder, Andrew Hill‘s Black Fire and Point of Departure, Grant Green‘s Solid and Idle Moments, and more.

I think what I like most about his style is its essential calm. Yes, his 1960s albums on Blue Note have their high-energy moments, especially 1964’s Inner Urge. You can draw a direct line from “El Barrio,” on that album, to David S. Ware‘s work 30 years later. Here, check it out:

But even when he gets as intense as that, there’s a sense of focus to what he’s playing, which is what links him to Ware in my mind. Neither man plays an unnecessary note, ever; they’re ferociously disciplined saxophonists. Henderson’s lines may seem diffident at times, like he’s mumbling into the horn, but it’s only because he’s omitting all unnecessary notes, honing his ideas to their core.

This is what makes The State of the Tenor interesting. Originally two vinyl LPs with seven tracks each, they were paired up later as a two-CD set. The music, featuring bassist Ron Carter and Al Foster on drums, was recorded at the Village Vanguard over the course of a three-night stand, and it’s a mix of standards and one or two of Henderson’s own compositions. Two-thirds of the first disc sounds almost like one long midtempo blues tune, as the rhythm section keeps things gently loping forward and Henderson wanders around, blowing long gentle lines like a soft wind that hints at a potential storm that never quite comes. The band never really erupts until track six, “Isotope,” when the music starts swinging extremely fast and hard. The disc-closing version of “Stella by Starlight” is fairly uptempo, too.

The second disc features many more aggressive, hard-swinging performances. Henderson blows hard, and Foster becomes much more rhythmically assertive than he’d been before, really driving the music. The Latin rhythm he sets up on “Y Ya La Quiero” inspires some terrific playing from the saxophonist, as Carter thumps out thick, melodic lines in between the two men. (Carter gets some excellent solos on both discs, taking some serious spotlight time on a forceful and at times quite free version of “The Bead Game.”)

Without doing a whole lot of research (digging up old reviews, etc.), I get the feeling that the two volumes of The State of the Tenor were quite rapturously received at the time of their initial release. I don’t know how aware younger jazz fans are of this two-CD set now, in 2011, or even how aware they are of Joe Henderson’s music generally (I know I’ve got a lot more to hear—aside from The Elements, his tenure on the Milestone label is a total mystery to me, and I still haven’t heard the Verve albums I listed above), but he and this music deserve to be discovered, or revisited, if it’s been a while since you heard him work.

Phil Freeman

Buy The State of the Tenor from Amazon

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