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Jazz Review : Bill Henderson Gets Vocal

October 03, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

When his time is not taken up by movie and TV acting assignments, Bill Henderson remains capable of reminding his audiences that he is one of the few totally qualified male jazz singers still extant.

Thursday at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, despite an attendance diminished by the earthquake, he rose above the circumstances to offer the best selected, most persuasively performed set this observer has heard in many years of Henderson-watching.

His timbre still has that oddly grainy quality that has always been a trademark, along with a strange, attractive vibrato that may recall the late Johnny Mercer.

Henderson's phrasing is virtually his own copyright. He tends to space certain words as if the syllables were separated by commas, even semicolons; yet everything winds up as a perfectly constructed sentence. This was particularly evident during "Senor Blues," in which the ominous minor theme by Horace Silver took on a character reminiscent of the original instrumental version.

His repertoire is by no means limited to jazz material. At the first show he cut a wide swath from Truman Capote and Harold Arlen ("A Sleepin' Bee") and Elton John ("Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word") to Jimmie Davis, a one-time governor of Louisiana who wrote "You Are My Sunshine" as his campaign song. It is doubtful that Davis' version was within hollering distance of Henderson's, which swung its way from gospel waltz to swinging four-beat, and from a ringing fortissimo to an almost whispered ending.

Central to his success were the arrangements, and the sensitivity with which they were performed, by Joe Parnello at the piano, with Roberto Miranda on bass and Ted Hawk on drums. It takes a little ingenuity to wind up a vocal performance not with the last notes sung, but with a gentle bass riff followed by a brief piano finale, which was the way things went on "I Wish You Love."

Henderson even incorporated the credits to his sidemen into a signoff blues. One can only hope that his dramatic gigs will not prevent him from keeping his vocal prowess in evidence on the jazz front. He closes at Vine St. tonight.

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