Back in March, we published a five-day journey through pianist McCoy Tyner‘s 1970s output, most of it on the Milestone label. That series proved interesting and popular enough that we’re following it up with this exploration of saxophonist Joe Henderson‘s catalog, running from his 1963 debut as a leader to 1980. At that point, he took a break, until coming back with the double live album The State of the Tenor (discussed here), so that seems like a reasonable cutoff point and still leaves us with about 25 albums to discuss.
Henderson was born in Lima, Ohio in 1937, and had five sisters and eight brothers (one of whom, Leon, was a member of Detroit keyboardist Kenny Cox‘s Contemporary Jazz Quintet). He went to Wayne State University in Michigan, and served in the Army from 1960 to 1962. Immediately after completing his term of service, he moved to New York, where he connected with Kenny Dorham, making his debut on the trumpeter’s 1963 album Una Mas. He appeared on over two dozen albums for Blue Note as a sideman between 1963 and 1967, including classics like Lee Morgan‘s The Sidewinder, Andrew Hill‘s Black Fire and Point of Departure, Horace Silver‘s Song for My Father, Larry Young‘s Unity, and McCoy Tyner‘s The Real McCoy. He also made five albums for them as a leader, which is where we’ll start.
Page One, featuring Dorham, Tyner, bassist Butch Warren and drummer Pete La Roca, was recorded in June 1963 and released in October of that year. The album opener, Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” is set to a gentle Brazilian rhythm, and the second track, “La Mesha,” is a ballad. This soft start has caused some listeners to dismiss the album as a less auspicious debut than it could have been. But there’s fire here; the first side ends with “Homestretch,” a jumping bebop tune that kicks off with some high-speed piano, followed by a leaping horn riff, and Henderson’s solo has plenty of bite. The second side kicks off with another Brazilian-influenced piece, Henderson’s own “Recorda Me” (a track he re-recorded several times and played live throughout his career, and which became a standard), and ends with two bluesy tunes, “Jinrikisha” and “Out of the Night.” It’s not my favorite of his albums, and if I’m being totally honest, he did better work that year on The Sidewinder, Black Fire, Grant Green‘s Idle Moments, and trumpeter Johnny Coles‘ Little Johnny C. But it’s an important part of the picture, and shouldn’t be ignored.
Our Thing was recorded three months later, in September 1963, and released in May 1964. Dorham and La Roca were present once again, but Andrew Hill was on piano and Eddie Khan was on bass. Henderson and Dorham (who wrote three of the album’s five tunes) were in close partnership at this time, though the trumpeter was coming to the end of his career. They made five albums together in 1963 and 1964, two under Dorham’s name (Una Mas and Trompeta Toccata) and three under Henderson’s (Page One, Our Thing, and In ‘n Out). They were very well matched. Henderson had a sharp edge to his sound, as though burrs of metal would prick your fingers if you touched his horn. Dorham’s tone was bright, but his notes often had a looseness, as though they were just on the verge of slipping off pitch. On Our Thing, Hill’s piano has a rough, almost clanging quality compared to Tyner’s fleet, precise style on Page One, and all this going on up front seems to inspire La Roca to a harder, more slamming style on the drums. Our Thing is a more confident, muscular, even blustery album than Page One. Joe Henderson figures by now, you know who he is, and he’s gonna do what he wants to do.
In ‘n Out, recorded in April 1964 (three weeks after Andrew Hill‘s Point of Departure) and released in January 1965, brought Tyner back as pianist. Richard Davis was on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. The title phrase could describe almost all the best records to appear on Blue Note in 1963 and 1964; there were plenty of bluesy melodies and swinging grooves, but experimentation and freedom were in the air. Everyone felt like their solos could get just a little bit more raucous and unfettered, their compositions a little more complex and unsettling. Three of the five pieces here are by Henderson; Dorham contributes the other two. Tyner and Jones were already deep into their tenure with John Coltrane, and they bring a lot of the fire and fury of that quartet to this session. The opening title piece is more than ten minutes long, and there’s a trio passage in the middle where I guarantee you neither pianist nor drummer gave a moment’s thought to what Richard Davis was up to. (For the record, his playing is excellent, but Jones is an absolute monster, dropping bomb after bomb.)
Henderson’s fourth Blue Note release, Inner Urge, was possibly his strongest statement on the label. It’s definitely my favorite of these albums. He reunited with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, and brought in Bob Cranshaw on bass. There was no second horn; it was his show, and he went all out. The opening title track is a staggering 12-minute statement that builds to a thunderous Jones solo. That’s followed by “Isotope,” a Thelonious Monk tribute that practically skips along as it begins. The backing trio does a capable imitation of Monk, Butch Warren and Frankie Dunlop, but Henderson goes farther out than Charlie Rouse would have. It’s the album’s third track, though, that really stakes out new territory. “El Barrio” was a simple two-chord platform, over which the saxophonist constructed a melody in the moment, but it’s the reverb-heavy intro, all clapping valves and hoarse, distorted blowing, that sets the tone. When he gets rolling, Henderson is in an incantatory mode Tyner and Jones would be very familiar with from their day jobs with the Coltrane quartet. At times, though, he goes even further, heading so far out, he almost anticipates David S. Ware.
Henderson’s final Blue Note album of the 1960s, Mode for Joe, was recorded in January 1966 and released in November. It featured an expanded ensemble—seven players in all, including Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Cedar Walton on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums. Three of the pieces here—”A Shade of Jade,” the title track, and “Caribbean Fire Dance”—would reappear on later albums. The music on Mode for Joe is a clear attempt to move beyond hard bop into more advanced compositional realms; many of the pieces feature terrific multi-horn melodies, bracketing adventurous solos. The title piece has this “just when you think it’s over” thing going on, where every time you’re sure it’s winding down, the main melody comes back one more time, clearing the way for another solo. It’s only eight minutes long, but it feels like it goes on forever, in the best possible way. Everybody’s on fire, riding Chambers’ high-energy drumming, but Morgan is in particularly high-flying form on “Black,” and Henderson’s tone throughout the album isn’t as harsh as it’s been on previous records, but he’s flexing plenty of muscle. (And Chambers’ solo on “Caribbean Fire Dance” rivals anything Elvin Jones did on previous albums for raw “let’s see you rebuild this kit when I’m done” power.)
That’s it for today—tomorrow, Henderson moves to the newly formed Milestone label, plays some blazing shows in Detroit, and hooks up with trumpeter Woody Shaw.