This is the final installment of a five-part series examining saxophonist Joe Henderson‘s discography as a leader between 1963 and 1981. (Click here for Part 1; here for Part 2; here for Part 3; and here for Part 4.)
After leaving Milestone Records in 1976, Henderson found himself without a label to call home. His next release was 1979’s Yama, and not only was it co-billed with flugelhorn player Art Farmer, it was only released on CTI in Japan. Produced by Creed Taylor like all CTI releases, it was arranged by Mike Mainieri, who also played vibes and synth. The ensemble included three other keyboardists (Warren Bernhardt, Don Grolnick, and Fred Hersch), David Spinozza and John Troppea on guitars, Eddie Gómez on bass, Will Lee on electric bass, Steve Gadd on drums, and Sammy Figueroa on percussion. None of the music was written by either of the leaders, though Grolnick and Mainieri contributed one each. Another of its five tracks is a version of the Bee Gees‘ “Stop (Think Again).” This is not a good record. With its shimmering synths, the gentle vibraphone, and Farmer’s too-lush flugelhorn, it could be a soundtrack to a softcore porn movie filmed in St. Tropez or someplace.
Barcelona, also released in 1979 on the Enja label, is a totally different type of album, showcasing Henderson at his most obstreperous. It’s a trio disc, on which he’s backed by bassist Wayne Darling and drummer Ed Soph. The title track is a nearly 28-minute live workout from June 1977 that’s actually split between the two sides of the LP, and has not been restored on the CD; it still fades out and back in again. The other two tracks, “Mediterranean Sun” and “Y Ya La Quiero,” were recorded in a West German studio with the same band in November 1978. Henderson’s tone is metallic and full, and he digs into two- and three-note phrases, repeating them over and over again until the energy becomes almost manic. Behind him, Darling and Soph can be a sympathetic rumble, or a furious, jouncing clatter. During the second part of “Barcelona” in particular, they play at almost reckless speed.
In 1980, Henderson made an unjustly overlooked album for the German label MPS. Mirror, Mirror features Chick Corea on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. Carter and Corea contribute two tunes each; Henderson writes one; and they interpret the standard “What’s New?”. It’s incredibly easy for these guys to just slot into semi-adventurous “inside-outside” hard bop mode, and that’s exactly what they do here for an extremely enjoyable six-track, 43-minute album. Higgins’ drums have a sharpness and a bounce that recall his work with Ornette Coleman, Carter’s bass has that 1970s rubber-band sound but his astonishing technique still comes through. Henderson’s playing on his composition “Joe’s Bolero” has the same ferocity and rawness he demonstrated on “El Barrio,” way back on Inner Urge.
Henderson entered the studio two more times in August and December 1979, for sessions that eventually yielded 1981’s Relaxin’ at Camarillo, the last album to be discussed in this piece. On that one, released on the Contemporary label, he’s joined by Corea again, and two different rhythm sections. On three tracks, Tony Dumas is on bass and Peter Erskine on drums; on the other two tracks, Richard Davis and Tony Williams take over. The cover art—Henderson silhouetted against a red background, smoking—makes it look like a disco-fusion album, but in fact it’s a straightforward acoustic jazz session. The first track, “Y Todavia La Quiero,” is a variation on “Y Yo La Quiero,” from Barcelona. There, it was an introspective free exploration; here it’s a strong, swinging melody that sets up some adventurous soloing but never loses song form. He’d also revisit the piece on The State of the Tenor, Vol. 2 in 1986, changing the title again, to “Y Ya La Quiero.” The album also includes a version of the standard “My One and Only Love” which features some beautiful sax-piano work with Corea, and ends with the title track, a Charlie Parker composition. Beyond the indisputable fact that Parker influenced, and continues to influence, every saxophonist after him, there’s not all that much in common between him and Henderson, to my ear. Parker played fast and clean and “looked for the pretty notes,” in his phrase; Henderson has a lot of the honker and bar walker in him, and is happy to let his lines decay and wander out of tune. This version of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” with Dumas on bass and Erskine on drums, has little of the bluesy bounce of the original; it feels manic and speedy, even though it’s more than three times as long. But the album as a whole is a solid effort, and well worth any Henderson fan’s attention.
Henderson took a few years off from recording after Relaxin’ at Camarillo; his next album was the live The State of the Tenor, Vol. 1, a 1986 release on Blue Note. He made a few trio records for the Italian label Red, including the live An Evening with Joe Henderson (with Charlie Haden on bass and Al Foster on drums) and a studio album, The Standard Joe, with Rufus Reid replacing Haden. In the 1990s, he signed to Verve and staged a strong comeback with a series of tribute albums tackling the music of Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis and Antonio Carlos Jobim, a big band album, and finally a version of Porgy & Bess. That 1997 release was his last; he died of heart failure on June 30, 2001, at 64.