This is the fourth installment of our week-long journey through saxophonist Joe Henderson‘s catalog, beginning on Blue Note and moving through an extended tenure with Milestone, plus a few one-off releases on other labels. (Here’s Part 1; here’s Part 2; and here’s Part 3.)
Henderson recorded 1973’s Multiple at the end of January, but returned to the studio in February and April to complete the album with overdubs and whatnot. The core band consisted of Larry Willis on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass (electric and upright), Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Arthur Jenkins on congas and percussion. Two guest guitarists also appeared: James “Blood” Ulmer on the opening “Tress-Cun-Deo-La,” and John Thomas on “Song for Sinners.” “Tress-Cun-Deo-La” is another one of Henderson’s Brazilian pieces, albeit one built on a deep funk groove, and this time he even sings, in a very cool, low-key voice before erupting into rhythmic scatting. As befits the album’s title, there are multiple vocal lines, and he’s singing over his own saxophone playing at times. Those looking for a wild guitar outburst from Ulmer, though, will be disappointed; he’s barely present. “Turned Around” is another highlight, a hard-driving workout that begins with slightly dreamy electric piano but soon becomes a squalling jam, with DeJohnette positively assaulting the kit as Henderson soars up and out.
Henderson’s next release, 1974’s The Elements, is one of his most highly regarded albums among open-minded rock critics, for one simple reason: Alice Coltrane. It’s an improvisatory collaboration between the two, with support from violinist Michael White, bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, and percussionists Kenneth Nash and Baba Duru Oshun. The four open-ended tracks are named “Fire,” “Air,” “Water,” and “Earth,” and they’re spiritual jazz-funk groove jams, as you might expect, but obviously with this personnel the music is nonetheless operating at a very high level. Coltrane plays piano, harp, tanpura and harmonium, and serves as the calming spiritual center of the record. Henderson responds to her mood, and remains somewhat restrained in his own soloing; his phrases are mostly thoughtful and exploratory, rather than raucous and wild. On “Water,” his horn is filtered through some pretty wild effects. White’s violin is a crucial element of the music, too, though; he was an under-recognized talent who also played with Pharoah Sanders, and made a couple of albums for Impulse! that are worth hearing.
Canyon Lady, recorded in October 1973 but not released until 1975, is simultaneously experimental and a little disappointing. The core band is Mark Levine on piano, John Heard on bass, Eric Gravatt on drums, Carmelo Garcia on timbales and Victor Pantoja on congas, and if that sounds like kind of a second-tier group compared with the lineups on other Henderson albums of this era…well, yeah. They’re fine, but don’t really bring much fire to the music. There’s also an eight-piece horn section that includes trombonist Julian Priester and trumpeter Luis Gasca, and George Duke plays electric piano on the first three of the album’s four tracks. Oscar Brashear gets a short but potent trumpet solo on the opening “Tres Palabras,” while Gasca goes even wilder on “Las Palmas,” a piece that begins with some unexpectedly weird synth noises. Canyon Lady is a record that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be; there are some experimental moments, many of them coming from Duke’s keyboards, but they’re balanced out by some overly lush, showbizzy horn charts. It’s definitely worth hearing, but not a landmark achievement by any means.
Henderson continued down this softer path on Black Miracle, recorded in February 1975 and released in 1976. The album features a large ensemble, including Oscar Brashear and Snooky Young on trumpets, George Bohanon on trombone, Don Waldrop on bass trombone and tuba, Hadley Caliman on flute and tenor sax, George Duke (under the name “Dawili Gonga” for contractual reasons) on keyboards, Lee Ritenour on guitar, Ron Carter on electric bass, Harvey Mason on drums, and Bill Summers on percussion. It opens with a version of “If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” originally heard on the live album of the same name (aka At the Lighthouse) and now simply called “Solution.” That change of title mirrors the music, which—despite Duke’s brilliant synth work—is too self-assured, and lacking in fire. Ritenour’s guitar solo is an effects-heavy exercise in hard-rock splatter, and the horn section sounds like a disco big band. The next track is a take on Stevie Wonder‘s “My Cherie Amour” that’s kind of drifting and overdone at once. The album also includes a studio recording of “Gazelle,” another track from the Lighthouse shows; Mason’s drums are in full post-Herbie Hancock disco-fusion mode, and Duke surrounds Henderson with shimmering keyboards. It might be the best track on the record, but that’s not saying much. Black Miracle isn’t available for streaming, but “Gazelle” is included on a compilation, so here it is:
Henderson’s final album for Milestone, Black Narcissus, was recorded at two sets of sessions, a year apart. But it wasn’t done with two different bands—he reassembled the personnel for the second date. The first four tracks were from October 1974, and the last two from April 1975; all featured Joachim Kühn on piano, Patrick Gleeson on synthesizer, Jean-François Jenny-Clark or David Friesen on bass, Daniel Humair or Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Bill Summers on percussion. Weirdly, this album functions almost as a sequel to 1969’s Power to the People; it includes versions of “Black Narcissus” and “Power to the People” from that album, and “Hindsight and Forethought” is a free-sounding eruption in the spirit of “Foresight and Afterthought,” which closed the earlier disc. Gleeson’s synths are a dominant presence, adding big doses of spacy weirdness to the record; it’s more compelling than Canyon Lady or Black Miracle, but difficult to find on streaming services. Here’s the opening title track:
That’s it for this installment; up next, four albums for four different labels.
Canyon Lady might be Joe Henderson’s best album. Soulful. Fat playing. Great melodies. Modal. Bebop. Out. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Horn lines are badass, not “overly lush”. Smoke some tree and loosen your panties.