Monday, August 06, 2012
The pleasures of post-purism: Joe Henderson in the ’70s
My latest listening jag concerns the saxophonist Joe Henderson. For the past five days or so, pretty much all my recreational music intake has centered around him. The phase is a follow-up investigation to a flea-market LP purchase I made a couple months ago: Henderson's Black Narcissus, from 1976.
The fact that I picked up that record—an highly unusual and indisputably of-its-time session, slathered in a thick vintage-synth glaze—and my intense enjoyment of it speaks to a change in my jazz tastes over the last few years. To put it concisely, I've thrown what I now identify as my former snobby purism out the window. When I was first getting into jazz, in college, I developed a series of parameters about what periods and aesthetics interested me. Maybe this walling-off was merely practical then; getting my head around the genre was such a vast undertaking that I had to set some limits. Anyway, guided by my own innate taste and also likely by the general critical bias—shared by some of my then-colleagues at WKCR—against fusion or what I'd call posthippie jazz of any kind, I homed in on the mid-’60s Blue Note aesthetic, exemplified by Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III, Sam Rivers, Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Young, Wayne Shorter and others, as my personal gold standard. For many reasons, records from that pool have aged incredibly well: They sound amazing, thanks to Rudy Van Gelder; they embody the most appealing characteristics of so-called "in" and "out" jazz aesthetics; the leaders and the sidemen are all virtuosos, who came up in the trenches, so to speak, and who took improvisational originality seriously; and they were made before rock, funk and pop influences whooshed into jazz, muddying the gene pool. (Rudy Van Gelder aside, the same could of course be said for the Miles quintet records of the same period.)
Simply put, I learned then a kind of prejudice against the ’70s and ’80s. What you wanted, it seemed to me, were those beautifully designed Blue Notes of the Lion/Wolff period, not the garish—visually and sonically—jazz records of the ’70s, with their super-dated graphic design and equally outmoded fashion statements in the artist photos, with subpar production values, either too clunky or too thin, to match. To bring my main point back around, I'm pretty sure I would've picked up a record like Black Narcissus out of the used bin a decade ago, noted its vintage and instrumentation (synths! congas!), and thrown it right back, confident that I wouldn't be missing out on any of what I loved about Joe Henderson's work on Pete La Roca's Basra, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure or Larry Young's Unity. (For whatever reason, I've only studied up on Henderson's great leader records for Blue Note more recently; I spent time with In ’n Out this past weekend and adored it.) I'll admit that I'm still wary of this whole "Deep Jazz"/"Rare Groove" aesthetic, as popularized by outlets like Soul Jazz Records (any longtime Wire reader will recognize their back-cover advertisements), but somewhere along the way, I realized that to wall myself from what I'll call, for my own purposes, the post–Blue Note years in jazz—i.e., post-1967, say, the year when Alfred Lion retired from Blue Note, John Coltrane died and Miles was in the process of bidding farewell to acoustic jazz—was a mistake. Sure, many musicians, maybe even Henderson himself, were swept up by the current in the ensuing decade or so; sure, the rigorous quality control that prevailed at Blue Note wasn't necessarily in evidence during Henderson's stint at Milestone (1967–1976); sure, records like Black Narcissus, and some other Milestone Hendersons I've been loving over the past few days—Black Is the Color, Canyon Lady, In Pursuit of Blackness, Power to the People—don't seem as uncannily undated as the mid-’60s Blue Note catalog does. But what I'm realizing is that purism-for-its-own-sake just isn't as interesting to me anymore; or rather, maybe it is, but I'm just as excited about jazz that is of its time, jazz where you sense a strange kind of friction between artist integrity and label bottom line; jazz where producers were setting soloists against all kinds of faddish backdrops to see what might sell; jazz, like Black Narcissus, where the confluence of free-jazzy experimentation and DJ-friendly grooving-ness makes your head spin. The title track (a piece that also appears on Power to the People, in a much more conventionally "tasteful" version) is one of the less audacious pieces on the record, but it still gives you an idea of the album's general bent, the way in which it reflects the jazz-industry climate that spawned it:
That "tasteful" I wrote above is important; in many ways, it strikes at the core of the point I'm trying to make. Is this a dated recording? Sure. It's unlikely you'd hear synths applied so liberally on a 2012 jazz album, and if you did, there would probably be some very deliberate kitsch-ification going on. Does this record have the unadorned elegance of a classic Blue Note recording? Certainly not. But then comes the trump card: Does Joe Henderson slay on this record? Absolutely. Listen as he heats up from about 2:50 on (I love that tranced-out tic around 3:10). Sure the synths are swarming around him, threatening to drown him out, but he's pushing back mightily, asserting his trademark grit and agility with as much potency as ever. In short, despite the eyebrow-raising sonic wallpaper, there's no mistaking this for anything other than a Joe Henderson record, and given what a tough-and-tender monster Joe Henderson was (RIP), a true force from the ’60s through the ’90s, for a fan of Henderson, and more broadly, of jazz to wall him/herself off from the man's output during the ’70s due to some straitjacketed notions of "good taste" seems like an aesthetic crime. Does everything on these records work? Of course not. (Some of the meandering cosmic-free-jazz abstraction on Black Is the Color springs to mind as an example thereof.) But is there some absolutely dynamite Henderson, some of the best playing I've ever heard from him, playing that's far more intense and unhinged than what you'll hear on his Blue Note recordings, on these records? Indeed. In short, any serious jazz fan needs to eventually learn to toss their superficial aesthetic hang-ups out the window if they're going to really wade neck-deep in this glorious music. Everyone loves the ’60s (and, for that matter, the ’50s); they're an easy sell—pure class, no funny stuff. But the ’70s offer a very different kind of pleasure; in the case of Henderson records like Black Narcissus, they're excessive, scattershot, confounding and also bubbling over with joy and invention. As you can see from the back-cover portrait, Henderson isn't sweating the sea change in the music:
He's going with the flow, yes, but he's also standing his ground. Many of the great ones did the same during the ’70s and ’80s. I think of Sonny Sharrock, whose Highlife I once disdained for its aggressively poppy, borderline smooth-jazz sound palette. But there comes a time when you realize that you'll follow certain artists anywhere and that you usually won't be disappointed when you do. Is Highlife on the same level as Ask the Ages? (With Sharrock, the Henderson timeline above is reversed; Ask the Ages, his last album, is the most "Blue Note," that is to say "pure," recording he ever made and certainly one of his best.) Perhaps not, but you're depriving yourself of some highly enjoyable Sonny if you skip it. And more importantly, in walling yourself off from where your ’60s heroes went in the ’70s and ’80s, you're over-idealizing them, making believe that they didn't have to struggle to find their way during those uncertain times for jazz, that they didn't have to reckon with the industry at large and the public's changing tastes. In the case of artists as raw yet adaptable as Henderson and Sharrock (recall that the latter played in Herbie Mann's band for years), that kind of negotiation was a central fact in their career and a principal reason why their respective discographies can seem so unwieldy. But we should embrace that unwieldiness, embrace the fact that the Henderson fossil record includes exquisite specimens such as In ’n Out up as well as more transitional, rougher-hewn ones such as Black Narcissus or Canyon Lady (a lush, soundtracky, Latin-centric session, released the year before Narcissus). As I suggested above, it's all Joe Henderson, and thus it's all great. As with Sharrock, it didn't really matter what was going on around him; when he played, he spoke the truth.
A couple caveats/clarifications:
1) Granted, we're talking about very high-caliber players here; I wouldn't adopt this "I'd follow you anywhere logic" with respect to just anyone.
2) Though it touches on the same period championed in the great Behearer revolution of 2006—that is, the overdue glorification of the best jazz of the ’73–’90 period—the point I'm making above isn't the same one being made during that hive-mind blogathon. Personally, my main takeaway from the Behearer episode was an appreciation for masters such as Henry Threadgill and Keith Jarrett, artists who made their first essential statements as composers/improvisers/bandleaders during this period (give or take a couple years). In other words, neither of these artists had, like Henderson, established himself during the era of Blue Note purism. (With Sharrock, it was more an Impulse/ESP purism, e.g., as established on Pharoah Sanders's Tauhid and Marzette Watts's & Company; he does appear on a Blue Note record, Wayne Shorter's Super Nova from ’69, but there's nothing conventionally pure about that wild, esoteric-yet-rewarding LP.) "The ’70s in jazz" wasn't something that Threadgill and Jarrett had to reckon with, react to, assimilate in particular; it was simply their breeding ground. Whereas Henderson, an artist who made his name in that golden era of jazz purism, was exactly the kind of jazz musician who is often thought to have "lost his way" in the ’70s, to have bowed to the aesthetics of the time rather than helped shape them. And while it may be true that Joe Henderson was no Miles Davis, in terms of forging ahead with a clear idea of what he wanted out of his post-purist jazz, what I'm saying is that that matters less to me now than it once did. As long as I'm hearing Joe Henderson play tenor, I'm happy, whether that's in a classically styled quintet in 1964 with Kenny Dorham, McCoy Tyner, Richard Davis and Elvin Jones (damn, that lineup…) or at the center of a synth-drenched post-fusion maelstrom in 1976. I understand now that each is enriched by the other.
3) I don't mean to suggest that all of Joe Henderson's Milestone records are as aggressively non-purist as Black Narcissus or Black Is the Color. There are plenty of more-or-less straight-ahead, or inside-outside, if you will, LPs among them, In Pursuit of Blackness and Tetragon being two that stand out among my recent listening. Power to the People (1969) is another one that, while certainly funk-oriented, nicely encapsulates the more conservative (i.e., hard-/postbop-informed) brand of electric jazz that flourished at the time.
I'd love to hear about readers' similar experiences re: "How I learned to stop worrying and love the ’70s/’80s output of Jazz Musician X." I'm very curious about, e.g., the CTI catalog. Which of those records are, as they are rumored to be, poppy and slight, and which of them are rewarding in the same way that Henderson's Milestone releases are?
P.S. This clip doesn't relate to Joe Henderson in the ’70s, but I can't resist linking to the man's appearance on Charlie Rose in 1997.