"A master at the height of his powers"
New York Times
Joe Henderson's name has become synonymous with power and grace on the tenor saxophone. He has long been revered in musical circles for his distinctive sound and powers of invention. His work in the '90s with Verve Records, starting with the 1992 album Lush Life: the Music of Billy Strayhorn has ushered him into a new echelon of popularity, among audiences and critics alike. For his fifth Verve release, Henderson approaches the classic Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. The result is a fresh, compelling look at a musical and compositional milestone, and another inspiring example of Henderson's artistry.
Written in 1935, the music from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" has woven its way into the body of jazz standards, with such tunes as "Summertime", "It Ain't Necessarily So", and "I Loves You Porgy". Jazz versions of the entire opera have been scarce since the late '50s, when now-legendary recordings by Miles Davis/Gil Evans and by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong preceded the release of the film version.
The elements that set Henderson's interpretation apart from other versions that have come before it, are his saxophone style - simultaneously romantic and modern - the rich and evocative arrangements, and an ensemble of all-stars which is small enough to be intimate, and varied enough to allow for a diverse sonic palette. Joining Henderson in the core group are guitarist John Scofield, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette - all celebrated musicians who have worked with him in recent years and who bring the right blend of improvisational looseness and intelligence to the material. Rounding out the rhythm section with his elegant touch is pianist Tommy Flanagan, in his first-ever-recording collaboration with Henderson. Trombonist Conrad Herwig and the young vibist Stefon Harris, add to the distinctive timbre of the album's overall sound.
In addition to the stellar group of instrumentalists, the album features two special vocal performances by pop artists with a pronounced jazzy flair, expanding the album's appeal. Chaka Khan takes on "Summertime" with a nuanced reading that begins coolly and builds to a Chaka-esque intensity on the last chorus. This guest appearance is a landmark recording for two reasons: the stunning, emotive performance by Khan and the band; and it marks the first reunion of Chaka Khan and Henderson since their work with the Griffith Park Collection in 1981 (an all star group with Chick Corea).
The incredible musical chemistry between Khan and Henderson is a reflection of the musical respect they share for each other. "Working with Joe is always a high point for me," says Khan. "[He] is one of the great innovators of our time."
On "It Ain't Necessarily So", Sting offers his own brand of devilish suaveness. The pop singer, who has sung in musical theater in addition to his original music, as well as singing the music of Kurt Weill, jumped at the chance to contribute to the project. Sting explains, "When they told me the line-up of the band, I freaked, and figured even I could sound good in front of that lot. The Gershwin material is timeless, sardonic, and difficult to sing, and it was nice to make my debut on Verve in such fine company." Henderson is understandably impressed: "I'm amazed by what Sting has done with this lyric."
Naturally, there are also plenty of instrumental highlights on the album, including the modal recasting of the song "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'", which may remind listeners of such '60s Henderson staples as "Mode for Joe". On "Bess, You is My Woman Now", Henderson performs a tender duet with Flanagan. Scofield, a longtime Henderson fan and his ideal foil, picks up an acoustic guitar for a sensitive reading of "I Loves You Porgy". "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" kicks off with a stripped-down meeting of sax, bass, and drums, and gradually builds up to the full band (minus piano), before laying into the theme with gusto. Henderson's playing throughout is full of the heat and elements of surprise we have come to expect from one of the world's finest musicians.
Henderson was born in Lima, Ohio on April 27, 1937, and picked up the saxophone at the ripe age of nine, having been lured into jazz via his brother's record collection. He remembers early encounters with jazz greats when he was an impressionable lad. "I saw Bird when I was 14, in Detroit. Before that, I had seen Duke Ellington come through there. I saw Trane come through with a rhythm and blues band. I didn't know who he was. Nobody else did, either. That was worth it to me, to get to see this live. Listening to a record is one thing, but seeing it live, seeing someone up there actually moving their fingers is something that also impresses a youngster."
After studying at Kentucky State University and Wayne University, where he played with Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd, and Barry Harris, Henderson was drafted into the military for a two-year stint. His long, winding discography began in 1963 with the Blue Note recording, Page One. During the '60s, Henderson was a regular fixture as leader and sideman on the Blue Note roster, playing on such classics as Horace Silver's Song For My Father and Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder, as well as penning several tunes that have become jazz standards, such as "Recordame", "Black Narcissus", and "Blue Bossa". During the '70s and '80s, Henderson continued playing and recording, notable with Blood, Sweat & Tears and Miles Davis, steadily garnering respect, though not a public profile as high as he deserved - an inequity that's been corrected during the Verve years.
This refreshing take on Porgy and Bess comes as a logical next step for Henderson, whose Verve projects have been notable, award-winning albums celebrating the timeless contributions of legendary composers, while also bringing out new aspects of the veteran saxophonist's own distinct musical language. The list includes tributes to Billy Strayhorn (Grammy-winning Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn), Miles Davis (double Grammy-winning So Near, So Far), and Antonio Carlos Jobim (Grammy-nominated Double Rainbow), as well as an ambitious presentation of his own arrangements of his own compositions, with last year's Joe Henderson Big Band.
During these Verve years, in addition to worldwide tours with his own bands, Henderson has been celebrated by President Clinton at The White House; performed in duo with Carol King for President Clinton's Inaugural Ball; performed as Special Guest with Carlos Santana, Rickie Lee Jones, and the late Antonio Carlos Jobim at Carnegie Hall; and performed as a duo with Melissa Etheridge for the Billboard awards, where he was awarded Billboard magazine's Jazz Artist of the Year.
His list of official awards for his recordings include 3 Grammy's, Down B