The tributes to Miles Davis keep coming, demonstrating what an incredible influence the man had over the jazz genre that both celebrated and reviled him. I generally like to hear people try to do something different with Miles’s music, as he himself would have done. After all, we’ve heard Miles do these tunes and have his recordings, so what’s the point of hearing others do them if they’re merely aping Miles? Eddie Henderson has played in the shadow of Davis for most of his career. When Henderson was 18, Miles (who was a patient of Eddie’s doctor stepfather) took him to a concert by the incredible band he led featuring John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Suitably impressed, Henderson learned all of Miles’s solos from Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue. When he played them for Miles, the Dark Magus’ reply was “You sound good. But that’s me.”
Henderson went on to study medicine and become a successful doctor while also playing and recording jazz on the side. Along the way he developed his own style, even though he remained heavily influenced by Davis. During his tenure with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi ensemble, he developed into a robust and mature player. In 1988, he gave up his medical practice to pursue jazz playing fulltime, and he has become a widely known and respected sideman, playing with Gary Bartz, Sonny Fortune, Mal Waldron, and others. So it seems very appropriate for Henderson to offer his respects to Miles as he does on So What, a release in Yasohachi Itoh’s new Eighty-Eights label.
Henderson and his group, which features tenor sax player Bob Berg, pianist David Kikowski, bassist Ed Howard, and alternating drummers Billy Hart and Victor Lewis, don’t exactly reconstruct the nine classic Davis tunes included here, as the Directions In Music group of Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, and Michael Brecker, did. They do, however, keep from sounding like they’re channeling Davis and the bands that recorded these numbers initially, opting instead to keep Davis’s approach to most tunes while asserting their own personalities. The group’s performance of the Wayne Shorter composition “Footprints” is a good example of this. Victor Lewis keeps the energy level high with salvos of drum accents, but doesn’t sound like he’s trying to be Tony Williams. Kikowski’s piano attack provides a very different take on the number than Herbie Hancock’s more impressionistic style, and Henderson himself, while indebted to Miles in terms of his tone and attack, offers his own improvisational approach to the piece.
Some of the song selections here are refreshing (“Prince of Darkness”, “Old Folks”) others much more predictable (“All Blues”, “Round Midnight”, “Someday My Prince Will Come”), but all benefit from the group’s attempt at a fresh reading. Even the somewhat overworked “So What” gets a different approach, with Ed Howard insinuating, rather than overtly stating, the bass line that forms the melodic basis of the composition. Berg’s tenor solo on the song skillfully walks a line between being influenced by Coltrane and outright imitation. The track manages to capture very much of the ambience of the Kind of Blue recording without really being the same performance at all. Much the same can be said about the performance of “All Blues.” It’s certainly no mean feat to perform two tracks from what is arguably the most well-known and loved jazz album of all time, capture their essence, and still put one’s own imprint on them.
Eddie Henderson may never quite get out from under the shadow of Miles Davis, but as the performances on So What demonstrate, he may not need to. Having devoted much of his performing life to developing his own style, Henderson has done so to the extent where it is possible for him to pay tribute to his mentor in the best possible way: by playing Miles’s music like Eddie Henderson.