Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson recorded consistently for over four decades, starting with his early-'60s Blue Note sides through the Milestone years in the '70s and (along with Dexter Gordon) as elder statesmen of jazz in the '80s and early '90s. With so much quality material to choose from, the annotators of The Definitive Joe Henderson had their work cut out for them. The massive scope encompasses reworking of Strayhorn and Jobim tunes, straddling the avant garde, especially on the Sam Rivers composition "Beatrice," and blowing hard bop with Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, and Curtis Fuller. As a primer for those not familiar with this material, The Definitive Joe Henderson will leave you wanting to hear more.
- Al Campbell (All Music Guide)
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"Things have changed so much," Joe Henderson said of the jazz world in 1996, some four decades after his career had begun and just five years before his death. "No one seems to want to get in there and hang in, for reasons of integrity, and work the stuff out until it comes out right. . . . Everyone now wants to get famous and rich before they do their homework." Henderson knew what he was talking about: Few jazz musicians have ever had more integrity or worked harder at their art. And while it didn't take him long after arriving in New York, in 1962, to establish himself as one of the outstanding tenor saxophonists in jazz, it took him practically his whole life to become famous and rich. Of course, fame and wealth are relative concepts in jazz; it could be argued that Henderson, like most first-rank jazz musicians, never achieved nearly as much of either as he deserved. But the happy fact is that, by jazz standards at least, he did become a bona fide star - an achievement that was especially sweet because it didn't happen until he was in his fifties. Early in his New York career Henderson worked with such discerning bandleaders as Miles Davis, Horace Silver, and Herbie Hancock. He participated, as both leader and sideman, in a number of recordings that have come to be regarded as classics (including Silver's Song for My Father, Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, and his own Inner Urge and Mode for Joe). The jazz cognoscenti recognized him as a saxophonist and composer with a unique contribution to make. But not until the Nineties did he begin winning Grammy Awards, appearing on The Tonight Show, and otherwise generating a serious buzz in the music world at large. This sampling of Henderson's work for the Blue Note and Verve labels begins with some of his first recordings as a leader and ends with some of his last. It should leave no doubt in any listener's mind that he was worthy of notice from the start. Born in Lima, Ohio on April 24, 1937, Joe Henderson began his career in Detroit and began recording for Blue Note shortly after moving to New York. Even in the middle of the world's busiest and most competitive jazz scene, he stood out - primarily because, at a time when most young saxophonists were under the sway of John Coltrane, Henderson had his own sound. To be sure, there were traces of Coltrane's distinctive torrent-of-notes passion and power in Henderson's playing; that was especially evident on "Inner Urge," a ferocious Henderson original whose Coltrane-like intensity was enhanced by the presence of Coltrane's regular pianist and drummer, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. But Henderson was also capable of playing with a serenely light touch that set him apart from most Coltrane devotees. And although he had an impressive arsenal of squeals, honks, staccato bursts, and sinuous trills, what made his playing truly special was his sense of melodic structure: Even at their most ferocious and unfettered, his improvisations always had a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. Henderson was unusually versatile as well, as comfortable and convincing in an avant garde context as he was with the down-home blues or the bossa nova. (One of his last albums was devoted to the music of the great Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim, but Henderson's way with a lilting Latin-jazz groove was already evident on such tunes as "Recorda Me," which was on his first album, Page One.) "I would never want to play in only one bag," Henderson said in 1964. "Music covers a much wider range than just one approach. I like to think of myself as having a feeling for all of music's possibilities." Henderson explored many of those possibilities during his initial tenure with Blue Note. But while that tenure was remarkably productive, it was brief. After leading the 1966 sextet session that yielded "Mode for Joe" (notable for the deft way his solo alternated between whisper and scream), he spent a decade with Milestone Records. Henderson then freelanced for a while before returning to Blue Note in 1985 with The State of the Tenor, which was recorded at the legendary New York nightclub the Village Vanguard, and on which he was accompanied by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster. Originally released in two volumes, it was widely hailed as his "comeback." In fact, he had never stopped performing, though he hadn't made a record for five years. It may be that he had never made one that showcased the full range of his talents as dramatically as this high-energy session, of which his seductively soulful reading of fellow saxophonist Sam Rivers's "Beatrice" was a highlight. The State of the Tenor captured the attention of listeners throughout the jazz world, whether they had been hip to Henderson for years or were just discovering him. Henderson's career further benefited from the great care with which he was recorded in the Nineties by Verve, which presented him in settings ranging from unaccompanied (his exquisite reading of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life") to orchestral (the succinctly named Big Band, which featured Henderson's driving arrangement of the Vincent Youmans chestnut "Without a Song"). Albums of the music of Strayhorn, Jobim, and Miles Davis emphasized Henderson's love of melody and his gifts as an interpreter; they also introduced him to the biggest and most enthusiastic audience of his career. Joe Henderson savored his surprising new success without letting it go to his head, remaining as hardworking and as adventurous as ever until a series of health problems began to slow him down in the late Nineties. He had been off the scene for a while when he died of complications from emphysema on June 30, 2001. A distinctive voice was silenced at a time when jazz needed all of the distinctive voices that it could find. Happily, as you can hear in this collection - which merely scratches the surface - he left an exceptional legacy.
- Peter Keepnews