Two Sides of Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson was the first saxophone player whom I ever called my favorite.1 As a younger man getting publicly into jazz, it seemed that the known heavies among the people I spoke with were more than I could get my ears around.2 There were tenor players I favored, Dexter Gordon chief among them, but I found myself wanting something that leaned into more aggressive improvisations, turned occasionally away from standards, maybe carried a message of personal – if not cultural, political or social – freedom. Sonny Rollins was almost perfect but older guys, like in their 40s, seemed to enjoy him a little too much.

Enter Joe Henderson. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he found a home at Blue Note and swung with the best of them. 3 In the meantime, however, he was playing some very different kinds of jazz, appearing on most of Andrew Hill’s miraculous LPs from 1963-19654, Pete La Roca’s Basra (1965), and Larry Young’s Unity (1965).

The years 1963-1964 also bore Henderson’s emergence as a leader. In that time he had four records appear under his name5. Frankly, there’s not a klinker to be found on any of those sessions.

So by 1967, if he wasn’t famous among listeners he remained in high demand among other players. One of my favorite saxophone numbers of all time comes from this period.

le konitz duets
“You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Lee Konitz with Joe Henderson, The Lee Konitz Duets, 1967.

The first time I heard this tune, and nearly every time since, there’s some point or other at which I seem to forget that I’m listening and the saxophones sort of take over my consciousness. I lose track of who’s playing what but one thing remains certain: Mr. Konitz, outside this duet, never has this effect on me. Mr. Henderson, on the other hand, has this effect on me frequently, and at every phase of his career.

Like many players in the late-60s and early-70s, Henderson seized an opportunity to stretch out further than he had even in the previous several years. His move to Milestone Records6 brought larger, funkier bands into the picture. Henderson was equally at home in this environment as he had been in every other7, and the aggressive tones he’d worked out during his Blue Note years simply erupted. Though it also appeared in the Milestone box and on Soul Jazz Records’ marvelous Freedom Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82, this tune originally appeared on his Black Is the Color LP in 1972, and characterizes for me the kind of force Joe Henderson was capable of:

black-is-the-color
“Foregone Conclusion,” Joe Henderson, Black Is the Color, 1972.

This was not a live recording. What you’re hearing, in part, is Mr. Henderson on alto flute, soprano saxophone, percussion and, obviously, tenor saxophone. The groove is fierce. 8 Which goes to the point that you could pick up pretty much any one of his records from pretty much any point in his 40-year career and find something passionate, conscientious, and technically astonishing. His was an awesome career. He is missed.


  1. Thanks and shouts to my friend, Michael Honch, who turned me on to Joe Henderson nearly 20 years ago.

  2. e.g. John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders; the point was clear: either one was hip to Mr. Coltrane’s journey out and the men heading there with or behind him or one was not quite with it at all.

  3. This is not a figurative statement. In addition to his sessions as a leader, Henderson played with Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan (on “The Sidewinder,” no less), Grant Green, and more.

  4. There were seven in all, two of which featured Hill’s all-rhythm quartets (no horns or reeds – either piano/bass/bass/drums or piano/vibraphone/bass/drums), and two others which featured John Gilmore, a worthy subject of tenor saxophone pursuit in his own right. Mr. Hill, of course, is a whole other study altogether.

  5. In 1966, Blue Note released Mode for Joe, which would be the last Henderson-led LP on that label until 1985’s State of the Tenor, a 2 disc live set recorded at the Village Vanguard.

  6. His entire Milestone catalog was released as a box set in 1994.

  7. Unlike some of his colleagues who more or less disappeared into an almost-visible haze of reefer, cocaine, and neverending sunsets under the increasingly warm, airless guidance of CTI Records.

  8. Bassist, Adam Rizer, likened the physical effect of such stern grooves to whiplash. He was talking about the Budos Band but I experienced this phenomenon with this number on my ride home from work today.

From My Old Blog, December 2006: About “Myrrhman”

Talk Talk is probably best known in the U.S. for their early ’80s hits, ‘Talk Talk,’ and ‘Dum Dum Girl.’ Some remember ‘Life’s What You Make It’ from the transitional The Colour of Spring LP but for the most part that’s the end of it. What goes largely unacknowledged is one of the most intriguing progressions in popular music history: Talk Talk, due to the mutual influence of keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene and singer Mark Hollis, became a band whose aim was, apparently, to not make any sound. The group went to great lengths to accomplish this goal, most notably, effectively, and perhaps paradoxically, by way of improvisation and expanded instrumentation.

[Edit, 2011] The effort towards silence succeeds in large part because of an equally extreme dynamic ceiling; that is, if the group was able to achieve stretches of near-inaudibility, they were also committed to periods of alarming saturation and volume.

tt-ls
Talk Talk, “Myrrhman,” Laughing Stock, 1991.

From My Old Blog, October, 2006: Thoughts on Seismosis

John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse’s *Seismosis* arrived today. It’s a wonderful-looking book with texts by Keene and drawings by Stackhouse. I don’t know the latter’s work but Keene’s *Annotations* has been one my favorites lately.

For what it’s worth, the poems remind me of *Annotations* though Keene’s style has developed remarkably, assured and matured in both subject and delivery. *Seismosis*, is less of a personal history than *Annotations*, though no less thoughtful, reflective or considerate. Keene’s approach is to take his subjects as objects in hand, noting their materials, weights, surfaces, contours, and variations. The drawings pre-register these notations, providing a record and measure as a fortifying context for Keene’s meditations.

Stackhouse’s drawings are scribbles, mostly, likened here to the titular needle-jumps of a seismograph. Taken as the book’s point of entry, they’re a pleasurable, bodily foil to the shape of Keene’s texts (lines, grids, blocks). The opening and closing poems, for example, share the title, ‘Process’; both are printed on recto pages, faced by Stackhouse drawings of dissimilar stroke and light: the first concentrates its vigorous strokes over each other and in the center of the page; the latter keeps its strokes to a relative minimum, creating two forms on the left and right sides of the page.1 Of the poems, the first reads, “In the mark event, you enter your signature.” The final poem, after much speculation on — among other things — spatial relations, human relations, and the relations between the drawings and texts of the book itself, acts as an aphoristic resolution of the first: “In the mark, we choose and lose signature.”

The distiction between the mark itself and the mark’s event is a crucial one for these collaborators, whose marks are contingent on the event of their collaboration; that is, the event (the book) of the marks (poems, drawings) amplifies the effects and meanings of the marks and transforms them into a single event, the way single notes form a chord. The resulting unity is no small feat. Most efforts at such union of illustration and text suffer the egos of their makers, an unwillingness to see their work subsumed into a greater project. For Keene and Stackhouse, on the other hand, it seems that *Seismosis* was occasioned by likemindedness, trust, and an abiding kindred sense between two artists.


  1. The drawings, part of his *Perpendicular Series*, are not entirely scribbles. Stackhouse’s use of straightedge, in particular, generates effective armatures for the works, directing attention from the page margins to the structure of his forms: drawings XII, XXI, XXIX (my personal favorite and the most ‘perpendicular’ work in the book), L, and LI (described above in conjunction with the second ‘Process’), are examples of this practice.

From My Old Blog, September, 2006: Muriel Rukeyser

I’ve been re-reading Muriel Rukeyser’s *The Life of Poetry* the last few nights. It’s not an easy book by any stretch, its density matched only by her elusive biography of *Willard Gibbs*. But there are numerous passages of immediate moral if not linguistic clarity, the following of which struck me last night:

[I]f communication has broken down, then it is time to tap the roots of communication. Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source. And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie. They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.

Later, in a somewhat different context, she writes, “The gestures of the individuals are not history; but they are the images of history.”

Rukeyser’s insistent humanism reminds me of Hayden Carruth’s, but not as individualist as his, and though her prose can, as I said, be cumbersome, her position is clear. Against the dominant strains of violence, imperialism, and inequality, she defines poetry as the center of healing, peace, community, and learning, as a measure of progress. Whether or not she’s right in this assertion might be open to debate (I’m pretty sure she is, for what it’s worth) but she remains, in any case, an active and productive source of inspiration as we approach election-times and face a seemingly neverending war.