10 Essential Joe Henderson Albums: Listening Tips From the Tenor Saxophone Great

Regarded by many musicians as one of the greatest saxophone players of all time, join us for a trip through ten essential Joe Henderson albums which illustrate the career of a jazz legend who some (including this writer!) feel never hit the level of commercial success he deserved.

Born in 1937, Joe Henderson emerged in the 1960s as a distinctive voice on the tenor saxophone, recording extensively as a leader and a sideman for Blue Note. Many of his compositions have become standards, most notably the jazz Bossa Nova ‘Recorda Me’, which he wrote as a teenager.

Instantly recognisable for his soft but coarse sax tone, supple phrasing, swirling arpeggio runs and intricate lines, Joe Henderson’s roots were in bebop and the blues, but he developed into a player at ease with modal and free jazz, with a natural affinity for Latin music. 

Born in 1937 in Lima, Ohio, he moved to Detroit to study music, where he met many of the players that he would later record with.

During his military service – a rite of passage for that generation – Henderson won a talent show and travelled worldwide with a band that entertained troops, finally arriving in New York in 1962 after his discharge.

He soon began leading a band with the trumpeter Kenny Dorham, recording five albums for Blue Note over two years – three in his name and two in Dorham’s.

So history aside, let’s take a look (and a listen!) to some of the best Joe Henderson albums from a prolific career which continues to influence modern jazz musicians today.

Page One (Blue Note, 1963)

His debut as a leader, ‘Page One’ is regarded as one the definitive Joe Henderson albums in any fans’ collection, featuring the definitive recordings of ‘Recorda Me’ and Dorham’s ‘Blue Bossa’ which would both become latin jazz standards.

The well-crafted band arrangements are integral to these pieces and pianist McCoy Tyner makes a big contribution.

Elsewhere, ‘Jinrikisha’ is an angular modal composition with a searching quality and ‘Out Of The Night’ shows Henderson’s interest in tinkering with the blues form.

In ‘N Out (Blue Note, 1964)

The third Joe Henderson album as a bandleader, ‘In ‘N Out’ sounds more progressive than ‘Our Thing’ which preceded it.

With McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums – not to mention the ever-adventurous Richard Davis on bass – there is the inevitable comparison with the John Coltrane Quartet.

The title track features a frenetic hard bop head over a 12-bar form. ‘Punjab’, with its ascending major chords, feels bright and optimistic and the gorgeous ‘Serenity’ has since become a jazz standard. 

Dorham, an older trumpet player who had worked with Parker and Gillespie, acquits himself well but the other players sound more at home.

Inner Urge (Blue Note, 1964)

Not only one of the most famous of Joe Henderson albums, but widely credited as one of the best jazz albums of all time, ‘Inner Urge’ was recorded in November 1964. Released in 1966, it finds the saxophonist as the sole horn with McCoy, Elvin and Bob Cranshaw (who is best-known as Sonny Rollins’ bass player).

Again, comparisons with other tenor saxophone players are put aside by the strength of the compositions and the maturity of Henderson’s playing. 

The tense ‘Inner Urge’ is followed by the angular blues ‘Isotope’, both now standards. ‘El Barrio’, inspired by his multi-cultural hometown, is a long Coltrane-style vamp but with a stronger Latin influence courtesy of a clave pattern in the bass.

Here, Henderson’s explorations in the altissimo register almost sound like a call to prayer, and he would continue to develop this technique. A relaxed ‘Night And Day’ sees the players stretch out on a familiar jazz standard

Mode For Joe (Blue Note, 1966)

For his last album on Blue Note Records as a leader in the 1960s, Joe Henderson assembled a larger ensemble consisting of trumpeter Lee Morgan, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, Ron Carter on bass, drummer Joe Chambers and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. 

‘A Shade Of Jade’ (groups of major chords again) and the brooding ‘Caribbean Fire Dance’ are unforgettable tracks while the unison bop head ‘Granted’ sounds derivative. Walton penned the title track, which frames Henderson’s high register fills nicely. In all, this recording sounds very assured.

The Kicker (Milestone, 1967)

Starting in 1967, the Milestone record label with producer Orrin Keepnews released 10 Joe Henderson recordings. ‘The Kicker’ is the first, and a relatively safe start considering the musical landscape of the time. Future Henderson albums would be more experimental though.

The title track is an original he had already recorded with Horace Silver (on ‘A Song For My Father’) and Bobby Hutcherson (‘The Kicker’).

Perhaps most interesting is the decision to include some of Henderson’s favourite standards, thereby acknowledging influences such as Strayhorn, Jobim, Getz and Rollins.

The following year’s ‘Tetragon’ is comparable, opening with ‘Invitation’.

Power To The People (Milestone, 1969)

Perhaps the most satisfying Milestone release, ‘Power To The People’ introduces electric bass and keyboards and features frequent collaborators Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette plus the trumpet player, Mike Lawrence.

The album opens with the beautiful waltz ‘Black Narcissus’ while ‘Afro-Centric’ and the title track use long, snaking melody lines over DeJohnette’s busy, loose beats.

The composition titles reflect Henderson’s growing interest in politics and the civil rights movement, and the music sounds purposeful as a result.

The Elements (Milestone, 1973)

Henderson’s experiments with ‘time no changes’ led to albums where he would improvise freely over long vamps, sometimes overdubbing flute, percussion and even vocal chants.

‘The Elements’, a four-part suite, features Alice Coltrane on harp, harmonium and other instruments alongside an electric-sounding Charlie Haden, violinist Michael White, drummer Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler and percussionists Kenneth Nash and Baba Duru Oshun. 

This still sounds fresh, due in part to the unusual instrumentation. But while it is interesting to hear Henderson stretch his vocabulary on these extended solos, his composer’s instinct and sense of form seem to demand a more structured setting.

State Of The Tenor, Vols. 1 & 2 (Blue Note, 1985)

Joe Henderson moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, continuing to record and perform into the next decade. 

He was signed to the revived Blue Note label, recording these two albums live at the Village Vanguard.

Ron Carter and Al Foster join him in the trio format pioneered by Sonny Rollins. The hypnotic ‘Y Ya La Quiero’ is one of three Henderson originals alongside a tender rendition of Sam Rivers’ ‘Beatrice’ and three Monk tunes including ‘Ask Me Now’ – by now a feature of any Henderson concert.

The mood is intimate and playful, and Carter’s articulate bass sounds huge.

So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) (Verve, 1992)

With acoustic jazz moving to the forefront, Universal’s Verve imprint signed, recorded and released 5 Joe Henderson albums: tributes to Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Henderson’s arrangements of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, and a big band recording. 

The tribute albums work well and are natural extensions of Henderson’s concert repertoire, packaged and given a marketing gloss. ‘Porgy & Bess’, featuring Sting and Chaka Khan on vocals, feels a bit contrived.

‘So Near, So Far’ feels less like a ‘theme’ album.

Henderson is joined by regular cohorts Dave Holland and Al Foster, with John Scofield bringing a welcome edge to the proceedings. All three had been Miles Davis sidemen. 

Joe Henderson was hired by Miles Davis for a brief period around 1969, playing alongside his contemporary Wayne Shorter. Another connection to Miles is a 1968 live session he made with the Wynton Kelly Trio, released in the 1990s as ‘Four’ and ‘Straight No Chaser’.

The Joe Henderson Big Band (Verve 1996)

This 1996 Verve release is a superb recording, presenting many of Joe Henderson’s best-known compositions alongside some you may be less familiar with, such as ‘Step Lightly’ and ‘A Shade Of Jade’.

The band is top-notch, featuring long-time collaborators Chick Corea and Freddie Hubbard with ‘young lions’ such as Christian McBride and Lewis Nash.

Many of the arrangements are by Henderson himself and may date back to the early 1960s when he led a big band with Kenny Dorham. 

Joe Henderson albums: Where next? 

Joe Henderson retired from performing in 1998 due to ill health and he died in 2001. His recorded legacy is huge and his playing is consistently good over the years.

Many of the Blue Note albums he played on are considered classics, including: ‘Song For My Father’ by Horace Silver; ‘The Sidewinder’, Lee Morgan; ‘The Real McCoy’, McCoy Tyner; ‘Unity’, Larry Young; ‘Point Of Departure’, Andrew Hill; and ‘Idle Moments’ by Grant Green.

Want to learn more about the history of tenor sax? Check out more articles about the greats of jazz saxophone or take a read through our rundown of the ten best John Coltrane albums.

Like the Blue Note style? We picked out 10 of the most iconic albums on the label’s history here.

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