On November 30, 1964, nine days before John Coltrane would record A Love Supreme in the same room, late tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson brought two-thirds of Coltrane’s rhythm section (and bassist Bob Cranshaw) into Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio and recorded an under-recognized masterpiece. It would be his fourth record as a leader for Blue Note Records, and his first in the quartet setting of horn with rhythm section. In contrast to the religious nature of Coltrane’s opus, which used the same format, Henderson’s was particularly secular, drawing inspiration from the challenges of urban life, but with a comparable power and spiritual resonance.
Ohio native Henderson honed his skills playing R&B and jazz in Detroit, and arrived in New York in 1962 after serving in the U.S. Army. The influence of gutbucket blues never left his playing, though it was subsumed into a vast harmonic sophistication and a rhythmic flexibility that remains unparalleled on the instrument. And it was all delivered with a rich amber tone, recognizable, as all great musicians are, within the first few notes. Henderson was signed to Blue Note after his impressive debut as a sideman on Kenny Dorham’s Una Mas.
Critics generally tend to favor the saxophonist’s first and last ‘60s sessions for the label, Page One and
Mode for Joe. While both good records, Page One has the careful feel of a leader’s first session, and Mode for Joe features the largest group of the five records, effectively diminishing the saxophone spots, and making the record the least spontaneous sounding of his early career. Henderson’s second and third albums found him, as on Page One, in quintets with trumpeter Dorham, and they were progressively looser and more adventurous, and effectively set the stage for the peak of his early Blue Note career.
The thing that makes Inner Urge so remarkable is the interplay. With McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, Henderson had one of the most telepathic piano-drum teams in the business, constantly busy with Coltrane’s commitments or freelance work. Both appeared on Henderson’s previous album, In ‘N Out, and were familiar with his style. On Inner Urge they shadow the saxophonist remarkably, reacting to each other and the leader in varying permutations, and subtly shifting the rhythmic focus in a kaleidoscopic fashion from second to second. Bassist Cranshaw fills his role beautifully, at times forming a center of gravity, and at others sliding forward and behind as the center is stolen by the others, only to dramatically retake it. His loose walking bass-line defines the sound of the session as much as the other more celebrated contributors.
The four musicians set up camp very near the outer reaches of post-bop harmonic playing, never abandoning chords, but stretching them with intoxicating ease. And from this region, Henderson and Tyner set up to deliver some of the most freely lyrical and exhilarating playing ever recorded.
Side one consisted of two Henderson originals, “Inner Urge” and “Isotope”. The first features a three-note theme that is fitted through a series of angular harmonic changes over a thunderstorm of a rhythmic figure. It’s contrasted by a “B” section that is the rainbow to the previous section’s storm, with a saxophone melody that coasts along bright slopes back into the dark clouds of the first theme. When the downbeat falls at the beginning of the saxophone solo, the experience of the “sound of surprise”, the description of jazz famously coined by Whitney Balliett, explodes into full bloom. Henderson said that he composed “Inner Urge” because he needed to channel his experience of moving to New York into something he could work with—a form to pour his experience into. It is an urgent performance, with the saxophonist reaching for figures that get blurred by the rhythm section’s illusion of perpetual acceleration.
The Monk-ish blues of “Isotope”, the Spanish-tinged modal vamp “El Barrio” and the lush reading of Duke Pearson’s beautiful “You Know I Care” lead up to the album’s closer, the triumphant reading of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, one of the finest recorded quartet performances of the ‘60s.
Porter’s song received its first public exposure in the musical “The Gay Divorce” in 1932, and Fred Astaire was its first singer. On Inner Urge, Henderson re-harmonizes the song, altering the chords that support the melody, giving it a fresh tilt that at once preserves the initial song and makes it sound new. “Night and Day” is taken at a brisk tempo, and Henderson’s new chords fill the melody with bright light. The band rolls along at what seems to be a perfect clip, alternating the joyous swing of the “A” sections with a so-called “Latin feel” in the bridges. Henderson’s tenor sings the melody and bursts into a solo of such fire and beauty that the music is lifted into a rarefied, blissful state, with the band on the very edge of empathy and split-second reaction. His first solo is like one long fireworks explosion. At its end he is met by pianist Tyner, who shifts into Henderson’s wake within a few beats, and effectively extends the magic through his entire solo, echoing some of the saxophonist’s phrasing within his own style.
At the end of Tyner’s solo, Joe Henderson’s re-entry into his second solo is one of the finest moments of ‘60s jazz. His opening phrase is so full of light and joy, amplifying all that came before and setting up the inevitable denouement of the performance, that it’s a small miracle—containing all the beauty and promise of music in microcosm.