What do you get when you combine the best jazz players in New York with some high-profile guest soloists to back up, in a big band setting, a featured artist? The usual answer? A competent, somewhat exciting set with a bunch of players each trying to steal the limelight. Unless of course, the featured artist is Joe Henderson; one of the most profound and highly individual voices on the tenor saxophone. Someone so highly regarded by the players themselves, that it is obvious that the project became a true labor of love.
The playing is wonderful throughout, with an obvious sense of commitment and the kind of attention to hip musical details that is most obvious when musicians play for their peers. Two different core bands are used, with interesting and contrasting results. One band ( referred to as Band 1 in the notes) is consistently a bit more relaxed with a slightly softer energy, while the other, perhaps as a result of being comprised of younger players, tends to sound more exuberant, eager, and more on top of the beat. Both swing like mad.
Henderson's sound can be difficult to reconcile with the hipness and modern sensibility of his harmonic and rhythmic concept. His is a far cry from the usual Coltrane influenced tenor saxophone sound that most younger players develop; it is warm and supple, without edge in the usual sense. His edge comes from an impeccable rhythmic incisiveness that few players possess. Improvisations are models of clarity within that very hip and complex space. Check out his solo on "A Shade Of Jade"; a beautiful example of thematic development. The opening four note motif of his solo consists of two ascending, then two descending notes; it is transposed, altered and turned inside out in a beautiful and perfectly logical way. Logic, in this case, not being the antithesis of emotion.
The arrangements, approximately one half by Joe, are excellent and uncluttered; and special mention should be made of Dick Oats' lead alto, Joe Temperly's baritone, and Jon Faddis' fabulous lead trumpet. Of the guest soloists, Chick Corea's piano work, perhaps because of his prior working experience with Joe, is particularly impressive.
As far as audiophile concerns go, the recording is very good if not in the same league as my reference big band recording: "Rob McConnell and The Boss Brass" ( Direct to Disc, Umbrella Records). Tonally, things are pretty good, with the individual sounds (timbre) of the players in various sections very evident. As is usual with big band recordings, the stereo spread is puzzling and a bit strange with the saxophone section panned far to the right, instead of being spread accross the front as it should be. Of particular interest is Joe's recorded sound. The purists among us tend to decry the way that close miking colors the sound of an instrument. Joe Hendeson has perfected the use of a microphone and uses it to his advantage. Anyone who has heard Joe live knows that his sound, in keeping with the absence of Coltranisms, is not particularly potent volume wise. He is one of the few modern tenor players that has the confidence to use a hard rubber mouthpiece, which tends to produce a more intimate and warmer sound than the much more popular and louder metal mouthpiece. By "working" the mike he has overcome the problem of getting sufficient volume in the context of a very energetic rhythm section, while retaining the beauty of his very unique tone.
Joe Henderson Big Band
Verve 314 533 451-2