[8 February 2011]
Eddie Henderson is a great jazz musician who has been scandalously underexposed. Or so it strikes me as I listen to For All We Know, the trumpeter’s latest recording.
Most fans, even fairly astute jazz nuts with large collections, will associate Henderson first and foremost with Herbie Hancock’s electronic sextet of the 1970s. In that context, you’re excused if you were inclined to hear Henderson as the Miles Davis stand-in, given how thoroughly that sound—and Hancock himself—was associated with the Ol’ Prince of Darkness himself.
In truth, Henderson is a different player entirely, and more careful and comprehensive listeners will know him as a more commercial electric artist, an able sideman playing funky, soul-jazz with Charles Earland, an outside-in sideman for the likes of Pharoah Sanders, or a mainstream player with a variety of leaders.
On For All We Know, Henderson knows that he is his own man, and so he is confident enough that he can evoke his association with Hancock (playing “Cantaloupe Island”) and with Davis (with an Al Foster tune called “Missing Miles”), while also leaning on his Davis-ish Harmon mute sound on the opening track, “Jitterbug Waltz”. And if there are a few key elements of Henderson’s sound that borrow from Miles’s book of gestures—for example, the tendency to stab repeated notes like a boxer looking for an opening—then it’s equally true that the leader evokes Freddie Hubbard when he plays flugelhorn or Art Farmer in other moments.
When, then does he sound like… Eddie Henderson?
Plenty. Henderson echoes other great players in passing, but his overall style is fluid and logical, stringing together easy passages in his solos that have a relaxed pleasure about them. “Be Cool”, one of the flugelhorn tunes, finds the leader playing with a sparky skip as he runs up in quick flights, then rolls back down his scales in slower circles of logic. The end of his solo lurks around the lower register to subtle effect. “Sand Storm” is a workout at a brisk stroll, where Henderson flirts with the edges of bop tonality some sputtering repeated notes, then fluttering and firing on quick runs. He gets to conversing with Bill Drummond on percussion, but the temperature never gets too fiery. “Cantaloupe” is funky but slightly off-kilter, and Henderson again seems like the calmest swimmer on the rolling waves—easy and always buoyant.
The star sideman here is most certainly guitarist John Scofield, a leader on some recent dates featuring Henderson. Scofield, in truth, makes the record, because he is given the room (with no piano on this date) to essentially define the arrangement of these tunes. On the uptempo tunes such as “Jitterbug”, Scofield brings a jagged energy and slighty Monk-ish tilt as a one-man orchestrator. “Cantaloupe” is given a groove by Drummond and bassist Doug Weiss, sure, but Scofield is the dancer at the center of the floor who syncopates the sway and keeps you mesmerized.
As a soloist, Scofield remains a great jazz guitarist—I write this a modicum of emphasis on the word “jazz”. In the last decade, Scofield has spent more than a little time noodling in the jam band world, but he has never really lost his bearings. When he begins to improvise, Scofield proceeds not only from the shifting harmonies of the song structure, but also from the intriguing notions of original melody that are natural in his ear. Rather than running about the scales too much, Scofield crafts an arc of melody. He seems to generate interesting, looping structures that lead to climatic rises or falls. Check out the beauty on Henderson’s “By Myself”, which is a freshly pulsing tune. Scofield’s guitar sound is also still a fresh thing: not really distorted, but choruses slightly and given a jarring edge that lets him buzz above the rhythm section.
Though Eddie Henderson’s main gig these days is teaching at The Julliard School in New York or the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, For All We Know is not the album of a guy whose playing days are over. The title tune, of course, is a classic ballad, but Henderson doesn’t flub a note or even a note-ending. His tone is all assurance and silk, with the occasional stylish buzz put into his sound. Sco and Henderson seem like old friends with stories to trade, but the performance is not more sentimental than it has to be. It is, for lack of a better term, mainstream jazz of the first order, not outdated in the new millennium, or so we should all hope not.
The closer, “Popo”, is a jaunty track that borrows just enough from newer jazz styles. Weiss starts the popping groove, with Scofield picking up the motion. Henderson’s hip little melody is just a quick gesture that lets him move it around and play with it, like a real modernist, all While Scofield echoes and dances in response. It is, without a doubt, the “modern” sounding track in the collection—a sign that Eddie Henderson knows full well that there’s room for growth in jazz.
He hasn’t given up on it yet, and happily, the music still finds him delightful and relevant.