Recorded August 23 and 30, 1956 in New York City.
Altoist Ernie Henry's first of three sessions as a leader, all of which were made within 16 months of his premature death, served as a strong debut. Joined by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Art Taylor, Henry - who always had a distinctive tone - performs five of his boppish originals, plus "Gone With the Wind" and "I Should Care." Throughout the date, Henry hints strongly at the great potential he had. This set has thus far only been reissued by the OJC series on LP.
All Music Guide
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It doesn't pay to go overboard too often in writing album notes. The fairly widespread tendency to claim each new LP to be, at the very least, among the two or three greatest jazz records of all time has one major drawback. It leaves no place to go when you're faced with a talent that truly deserves some of those casually tossed-about superlatives. If practically everything is called "great," what can you call something really great?
We have usually tried to be reasonably restrained in writing album notes. Now this virtue is rewarded. For this LP, we firmly believe, presents a truly remarkable, superior jazz artist-and we find that we have a few suitable adjectives on hand that haven't had all the juice squeezed out of them.
Ernie Henry is a gifted musician and jazz writer, with a firm command of his instrument, a fresh sound, and more than his share of legitimately new ideas. Thelonious Monk, who knows Ernie's work well, is by no means given to easy praise; his highest superlative, infrequently used, is the phrase with which he answered when we asked his opinion of the young alto player. Said Thelonious: "He can play"
We had first heard enthusiasm for Henry from pianist Randy Weston (one of the very few other musicians whose albums have led us to write in superlatives). Respecting Randy's taste and judgment, we traveled to the wilds of Brooklyn to catch Ernie at a local bar. It was a bustling, noisy room, with three or four musicians crowded into one corner; and Ernie was having some trouble with a new alto that turned out to be slightly defective. But none of this mattered much: after just a few choruses it was very clear that he had it. He could play.
Actually, Ernie has been around for more than a few years, being among those young jazz artists who have gained considerable respect from fellow musicians without managing to attract such supposedly alert professionals as booking agents, club owners, and jazz record companies. Ernie was a part of the bop scene of the late 1940s, appearing on records with Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro, and Howard McGhee. But in fairness to those who did not take sufficient notice of him then, it is true that there has been considerable maturing of his style and ideas since that time. He is now fully ready to be heard and enjoyed by as many as will give themselves that privilege.
Henry was born in September 1926, in Brooklyn. (A good case could probably be made out for the existence of a Brooklyn "school" of modern jazz. Note, for example, three who grew in the same neighborhood as Ernie and played with him in kid bands: Max Roach, Cecil Payne, and Weston.) The Henry family includes a father who plays piano and a sister who is a piano teacher and church organist; Ernie himself began on piano at 8, violin at 10, and turned to alto sax while in high school, beginning in the style of Johnny Hodges, who, of course, was the alto man at the time.
His professional career began after his Army service: in 1947 he was on 52nd Street with Dameron; he spent the next two years with Dizzy Gillespie's band, also worked with Charlie Ventura and Georgie Auld, and was with Illinois Jacquet in 1950-51. Since then it has been largely freelance, with increasing emphasis on developing his own writing and arranging skills.
Ernie's first memory of hearing Charlie Parker dates back to 1939, when he happened to catch a radio-broadcast of the Jay McShann band from the Savoy Ballroom and, he recalls, was immediately impressed. Obviously Henry, like every other current alto man, has been heavily influenced by Parker. But it should be equally obvious that this is one of those presently rather rare instances of an alto man who is no mere "Bird" imitator. Instead, Ernie's goal has been the legitimate creative act of absorbing parts of Parker's revolutionary accomplishments into the framework of his playing and of moving on from there in his own personal direction.
One important quality, lacking in many of those direct "followers," which Bird had and Ernie also possesses, is a deep understanding of the blues (as evidence of this, note "Cleo's Chant"). Another vital asset is his interest in what today sometimes seems a lost art: the ability to play ensemble jazz. The sound that Ernie and Kenny Dorham achieve together is clearly something all their own. It involves a close rapport that not even the best musicians can hope to establish quickly and easily: the fact is that Kenny and Ernie have known each other for a long time and have worked out extensively in the Henry basement, although this was their first opportunity to demonstrate in a recording studio their cohesive playing and thinking.
Dorham's brilliant solo work is, of course, also a great asset to the record. Kenny was a member of the original Jazz Messengers, and is currently the successor to the late Clifford Brown with Max Roach's group. Kenny probably hits his high point for this album with his rich, haunting choruses on the ballad "I Should Care." Pianist Kenny Drew, Art Taylor on drums, and the remarkable young Chicago bassist, Wilbur Ware, all demonstrate rare taste and skill in handling Henry's arrangements. (Drew impressed enough for us to pull him aside after the first session and ask him to cut a trio album, which will be released shortly.) Far from least, these five men enjoyed working together, with a feeling of cooperation and relaxation that is not going to be equaled on very many record dates. And don't ever minimize the importance of that sort of attitude to the creation of superior jazz.
To us at Riverside, the most exciting aspect of this LP is that it is unlikely to be the best Ernie Henry recording ever. Not that there's anything wrong here. It's just that everything to be heard here seems to announce in the strongest way that there is so much more creativity still to come. As a thinking as well as a blowing musician, Henry seems to us destined to accomplish a lot.
He is striving towards new things, both in his own playing and in a group sound. Ernie himself feels that he is just barely beginning to make this happen; we feel that he underestimates himself drastically. But even if you want to consider it as just a starting point, this first Ernie Henry LP achieves so much more than most that the prospect is truly awesome.