Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson's opening night at the Jazz Bakery on Tuesday had the very thing that his recent and much celebrated recording of songs from George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" lacked: a strong presence from Joe Henderson.
While that album's high concept, with its overabundance of instrumentalists and ill-suited vocals from Sting and Chaka Khan, tends to obscure Henderson's distinct way with the horn, his first performance of a six-day run before a crowded and appreciative house brought Henderson's personality into sharp focus.
Henderson's saxophone wasn't the only thing cut from its leash. His sextet featuring trombonist Conrad Herwig, trumpeter Rex Richardson and vibraphonist Stefon Harris asserted itself with play equal to its leader's. The results were reassuring to those who feared Henderson may have lost some creative fire.
The tenor player opened the set on an encouraging note, putting aside Gershwin for the moment to explore Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan" as he did on an earlier concept album. The tune's light, dancing theme proved the perfect vehicle for Henderson's agile play, and he took full advantage with characteristic clusters of ascending lines, quirky vibrato and sharp cornering.
Henderson moved on to material from "Porgy and Bess" ("Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin' ") but put the emphasis on improvisation rather than arrangement. He built tension by rushing phrases, then suddenly cutting them short, standing silent for a moment before going on. The cries and overtones he's employed throughout his career surfaced here and there but at tinglingly subdued volumes.
Trombonist Herwig's play added needed intensity while trumpeter Rex Richardson was more detail-oriented, peppering his extended phrases with bursts of single-note punctuation. Most impressive of Henderson's sidemen was Harris, whose tension-building pauses between lines reflected a maturity usually expected of older players.
Joe Henderson plays the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City, tonight-Sunday, 8:30 and 10 p.m.; Sunday, 6 and 8 p.m. $20 today-Friday; $22 Saturday; $18 Sunday. (310) 271-9039.