Perhaps one of the more underrated tenor saxophone giants of the 20th Century, Joe Henderson nonetheless recorded some iconic jazz albums, in particular with Blue Note Records. In this article we take a closer look at his 1993 album So Near So Far (musings for Miles) which showcases a veteran of the scene paying tribute to the recently-departed Miles Davis.
Very much his own man, Joe Henderson had a concept and sound all of his own. Following his own path, unlike many of his contemporaries Henderson did not fall under the spell of John Coltrane, and while he could not ignore Coltrane’s innovations and contributions to the music, he assimilated what he felt was pertinent to his own musical concept and moved on.
If looking at influences, Henderson was perhaps closer to Rollins and Shorter, with his own mastery of rhythm and a melodic sense that seemingly had an endless supply of interesting phrases.
Less obtuse than Wayne Shorter and often with a lighter attack than Rollins Henderson quickly garnered an enviable reputation as a first call hard bop tenor player and the throughout the 1960s he would play on many of the most influential albums of the day.
Born in Lima, Ohio on April 24, 1937 Joe Henderson was part of a large family being one of no less than fourteen children.
His interest in music was nurtured by his older brother and his parents and the budding young musician would try his hand at drums and piano in addition to saxophone, and as part of his later studies at Wayne State University he would also play flute and bass. Henderson continued his musical education at the Teal School of Music furthering his studies in composition and saxophone.
Drafted into the US army in 1960 where he served two years he continued to play, and upon his discharge from national service in 1962 he immediately headed for New York. This was an extremely crucial time in Henderson’s development and he would go onto record on many recording sessions for the legendary Blue Note Records between 1963 and 1968.
His contributions to classic albus such Song For My Father by Horace Silver and Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder ensured that his considerable talent was given plenty of exposure and cemented his reputation as one of the foremost tenor saxophonists in jazz. He would also record five influential albums for Blue Note under his own name.
The seventies were a lean time for Henderson. While still active, the albums he made for Milestone Records were rather lacklustre compared to his earlier output for Blue Note.
Continuing to lead his own bands it would ironically be his former label that would be responsible for helping Henderson get his recording career back on track, and even beginning a purple period for the saxophonist that would one excellent album after another.
In a well thought out and arranged set, Henderson took a trio consisting of himself, bassist Ron Carter and Al Foster on drums into the Village Vanguard in New York in November 1985 to record two albums that would be released as The State of the Tenor Volumes One & Two.
These records found Henderson at the peak of his powers and playing better than ever. Two further trio albums were cut for the smaller Red imprint before the saxophonist made another shift in labels and signed to Verve with who he would remain until his death in June 2001.
With his new label came a new lease of life for Henderson. Verve looking to capitalise on the saxophonist’s recent Blue Note album ushered him into the studio to record an album of Billy Strayhorn tunes with the results being released in 1992 as Lush Life which was an excellent return on their investment for his new label.
Even better was the follow up, So Near, So Far which featured music associated with the trumpeter Miles Davis who had passed away the previous year. Inevitably, there had been a whole host of tribute albums dedicated to Miles, but this one was very different.
Firstly, the tunes were all closely associated to the trumpeter and not often covered, and secondly all the participants had played with the trumpeter at various times in his career. Henderson had only played a couple of weekends with Davis and his quintet in 1967 but the music had made a deep impression on the saxophonist.
Bassist Dave Holland had been persuaded by Miles to fly half way around the world to play some gigs and attend a recording session in 1968, and stayed with the trumpeter for two years.
John Scofield was an established recording artist and leader in his own right when he joined Davis in 1982 and would remain in the band for three and half years and recording on three of Davis’s comeback albums, while drummer Al Foster had two stints in Miles’s bands.
Replacing Jack DeJohnette in 1972, Foster was Davis’s drummer of choice until his sudden retirement from music in 1975. When he chose to emerge from his self-imposed exile in 1980 the trumpeter again sought the services of Foster who remain with the band until 1985.
From the very outset, as soon as the first notes of ‘Miles Ahead’ it is apparent that this is a very special record. In an arrangement that is pared from Gil Evans’s orchestral version down to a quartet the music is totally compelling.
Henderson’s tenor sound is light yet assertive as his melodic invention constantly tugs at the listener’s ear. As if a quietly spoken conversation, the saxophonist is most engaging and as a listener you will not wish to miss a single phrase or gesture.
If ‘Miles Ahead’ is all about the arrangement and Henderson’s solo, the following number showcases the quartet as a collective unit. ‘Joshua’, written by Victor Feldman and featured on the trumpeter’s Seven Steps To Heaven album released in 1963 is given an exceptional reading.
From Dave Holland’s opening bass riff and Scoffield’s tasteful guitar, just listen to how he varies his attack and dynamics from one chord to the next, the playing is faultless.
Joe plays out the theme and his entry into his solo is masterful. His tenor lines give the impression of falling away from the theme, spinning into a parallel orbit that retains its relationship with the tune as Henderson lays out his solo in carefully constructed phrases that flow effortlessly.
Scofield solos next and is up to the challenge, following the leader with an outing that is every bit as subtle and melodically interesting.
Henderson bravely takes on ‘Flamenco Sketches’ from Davis’ Kind of Blue album and his playing is exquisite. Dave Holland plays the familiar opening note and from his opening statement of the theme using the tenor’s upper register, the saxophonist is able to transform the music into a unique tribute to Miles that is also uniquely his own.
Henderson’s solo makes no references to Miles or Coltrane’s solos on the original but instead states his own case for the music in another superbly crafted solo that says a lot with comparatively few notes.
The ballad side of Henderson is again heard on the composition ‘Circle’ written by Davis and originally appearing on the 1967 album Miles Smiles with his second great quintet.
Again, the saxophonist plays with a quiet and gentle sound that exudes a sense of careful construction and thought that makes it hard to believe that these are improvised solos. The rhythm section is with him all the way, and their accompaniment is loose and free flowing allowing tenorist to move in any direction that he chooses.
The album closes with the title track written by two British musicians, Tony Crombie and Benny Green and featured by Miles on the Seven Steps To Heaven album, and it is possible that the trumpeter was introduced to the tune by Victor Feldman who played piano on half of the album and was also from the UK.
Henderson also appears to be enamoured of the tune, and while he plays it with a little less urgency in the theme than Miles, he kicks things up a notch in his solo that refuses to take the easy option in negotiating the tune’s structure.
Holland and drummer Al Foster are forced to push the music a little harder although Scofield steadfastly refuses to do so, and his relaxed and laconic accompaniment lends a delicious air of tension which he resolves in his solo.
As with all great albums the music is varied yet has a its own strong identity. Henderson plays as well as at any time in his career and clearly enjoys the company he is keeping, while the contributions of Scofield, Holland and Foster lift the music to the next level.
Verve, Recorded October 12 – 14, 1992
Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone); John Scofield (guitar); Dave Holland (double bass); Al Foster (drums)