Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Joe Henderson - Virtuoso Jazz Saxophone

By Neal Battaglia

Joe Henderson has been called a supreme melodist by one music writer, a musical astronaut by another jazz musician, and by a lucky few he has been called teacher. Two of my saxophone teachers took lessons from him in San Francisco and I hear some cool stories about him.

Joe Henderson truly personified musical greatness; he played the saxophone, drums, piano, flute, and bass as well as excelling at composition. It was by listening to jazz sax greats like Lester Young, Flip Phillips, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, and Charlie Parker on his brother's record player that Henderson found his greatest inspiration.

In the mid-fifties, before he was even old enough to start college, Henderson was active in the Detroit jazz scene and played with many visiting stars from New York. By the time he did get to college, he had transcribed and memorized an impressive number of Lester Young solos. Such an impressive amount, in fact, that his professors believed him to have that elusive skill known as perfect pitch.

Joe entered the U.S. Army in 1960 and entered an Army talent show with a four piece combo. The group took first place, and the victory gave Henderson a chance to tour around the world entertaining troops. He stayed in the army for two years, getting out in 1962. That same year he would record the biggest hit of his career, with the help of trumpeter Kenny Dorham. The song was called Snap Your Fingers and would hit #8 on the pop charts and #5 on the easy listening charts.

A few years later, this time as a sideman in Horace Silver's band, Henderson would contribute his saxophone stylings to another hit record, Song for My Father. Joe plays his solo after the piano. After leaving Silver's band in 1966, Henderson was the co-leader of a big band with Dorham. His arrangements for this band would not get recorded until 1996 with the release of the album Joe Henderson Big Band.

Joe also performed as a freelancer during this time and played on several great albums, including Herbie Hancock's The Prisoner and Andrew Hills albums Black Fire and Point of Departure. In 1967, he played briefly with Miles Davis, however, none of those shows were recorded. Also in 1967, he signed with Milestone records and began experimenting more with avant-garde techniques, electronic effects, and studio overdubbing. During this new phase in his career his song and album titles showed an increasing social awareness.

Joe Henderson had a brief stint with Blood Sweat and Tears in 1971 before moving to San Francisco and focusing on teaching. He continued to perform into the 1980s, mostly as a leader, but occasionally as a sidemen for Chick Corea and the Griffith Park Band. In the eighties, he focused more of re-interpreting existing jazz standards and his older work than writing new music. In 1986, when jazz was facing a resurgence, Henderson released a two volume album, State of the Tenor. It featured Ron Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums.

Verve Records took notice of him in the early 1990s and produced his 1992 comeback album Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. The album, along with an extensive marketing campaign on behalf of Verve, positioned Henderson firmly at the forefront of the jazz scene. The album was followed up by a tribute album to Miles Davis and Henderson's version of the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess.

Henderson played a Selmer Mark VI saxophone through a Selmer Soloist D-facing mouthpiece with La Voz reeds.

-Neal Battaglia

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