IRVINE — As many times as you may have heard the old Billy Strayhorn tune "Take the 'A' Train," you've probably never it heard quite the way tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson played it Sunday, the second and closing day of the Orange County Register Jazz & Blues Festival on the UC Irvine campus.
In Henderson's hands, the old war horse, played at a breakneck speed, became a magical vehicle of expression, filled with revealing passages and strong statements of personal identity.
One problem, though: There just weren't that many in attendance to hear the reigning master of the saxophone ply his trade. Overcast skies kept attendance down at Saturday's opening installment of the festival, but no such excuse was apparent Sunday as the event continued under blues skies and sunshine. With a crowd estimated at no more than 500 during its peak, the fest--a mix of locally based blues and jazz bands with a strong headliner each day (Henderson on Sunday, pianist Cedar Walton on Saturday)--fell far short of the promoters' expectations.
And that's a pity. Sunday's edition offered an array of solid musical performances topped by Henderson's rare O.C. appearance. The fest had all the usual ingredients--casually clad fans reclining on beach chairs and blankets while children tossed Frisbees and footballs around the perimeter; vendors selling food and drink and souvenir T-shirts and caps, air smudged with barbecue smoke--but it lacked the intensity a larger crowd would have brought.
Still, Henderson, like most of the other performers, didn't let the sparse attendance interfere with his music. His crack backup trio--pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Al Foster--played with the same spark it generates in smaller club settings as each member made impressive improvisational statements worthy of his or her leader (Henderson and the group plays tonight through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood).
Henderson was magnificent. Opening quietly, he drew the audience in with reserved statements that roamed easily around the scale before he suddenly escalated the volume and ambition of his attack. He strung together rapid lines of various lengths, capping some with familiar Hendersonisms--octave leaps, quiet squeaks paired with low-end honks and caterwauls--before handing off to one of his band-mates. He reached back to the early days of his career with his tune "Serenity," fellow saxophonist Sam Rivers' "Beatrice" and an old Henderson standby, Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now," which featured him in a long, unaccompanied passage.
Rosnes, known to jazz fans through a series of excellent recordings on the Blue Note label, also was impressive, providing pointed accompaniment for Henderson's explorations while soloing with plenty of personality. Bassist Grenadier used the full range of his instrument as he developed nimble yet melodic solos that never lost their sense of time. Foster, the longtime Miles Davis associate who now is at the peak of his craft, pulled a wide array of sounds from his modest drum kit, using rims, cymbal stands and plenty of tom-tom play to power his constantly evolving rhythmic support.
Before Henderson's set, the young sextet Black Note made a strong showing of its neo-bop originals. The group, which records its first major-label album in November for Columbia, recalls various editions of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with its tenor-alto-trumpet front line and the kind of original material (much of it written by the group's alto saxophonist James Mahone) that the late drummer-bandleader would have been pleased to play.
Outstanding contributions came from confident pianist Ark Sano; trumpeter Gilbert Costellanos, who wrote the group's untitled up-tempo opening number; alto saxophonist Mahone, whose tone and style recall alto whiz Sonny Fortune, and bassist Mark Shelby, whose broad-shouldered sound kept even the most furiously played passage on its feet.
Ambitious tenor saxophonist Phil Vieux worked with Sonny Rollin's tone and John Coltrane's sensibilities but often resorted too easily to up-register cries to make his point. (Vieux, like the rest of the band, could be seen listening intently to Henderson's set.) Drummer Willie Jones III provided admirable timekeeping while peppering his sound with offbeat snare and cymbal accents.
Brazilian guitarist, singer and composer Kleber Jorge brought some variety to the proceedings earlier in the afternoon with a set of samba-inspired originals and an ubpeat number written by fellow Brazilian Milton Nascimento. Jorge's lilting vocals, backed by the strong rhythm section (bassist Randy Tico, drummer Kevin Ricard and percussionist Kevin Winard), were perfect for the setting, and the music was well-received by the small crowd.