Joe Henderson's death on June 30 at age 64 did not come as a surprise. For months, even years, his reportedly fragile health had been a topic of concern to many in the jazz community. Conversations with friends in San Francisco, where he lived, inevitably included the question, "Have you seen Joe? How's he doing?" and almost equally inevitably elicited the response, "I'm not sure, but he didn't look good the last time I saw him."
I was fortunate enough, in my playing days, to have participated in a few rehearsals with Henderson as part of a free-floating, musically adventurous collective run by the late trumpeter Don Ellis. Like most of his musical excursions of the period, Ellis' ensemble attracted an array of players, with musicians such as Steve Lacy, Gary Peacock, Joe Farrell, Ed Shaughnessy--in addition to Henderson--showing up for various gatherings. The music was beyond cutting edge, reaching from happenings-like pieces and unscripted, pure spontaneity to Ellis' growing fascination with unusual metric rhythms.
And what was fascinating even then, when we were all much younger, was the way Henderson could so easily adapt his playing to the demands of any musical circumstance and still maintain his essential creative reality. That quality was present throughout his recording career, which was--thankfully--well-documented. It would be hard to go wrong with any Henderson album, but here's a group of 10 that encompasses much of his finest work. Consider them all, in one way or another, to be four-star efforts.
"Page One" (Blue Note). Henderson made his debut as a leader with this in 1963. It was a remarkable introduction and the first of a series of sterling Blue Note outings. His group of the period included frequent front-line partner Kenny Dorham on trumpet, along with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Butch Warren and drummer Pete LaRoca. The program included two numbers that were to become virtual jazz standards: Dorham's "Blue Bossa" and Henderson's "Recordame."
"In 'N Out" (Blue Note). Henderson's third Blue Note outing once again included Dorham along with the brilliant, all-star rhythm section of Tyner, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Elvin Jones. The finger-busting title track was an early indication of Henderson's compositional skills, and the playing revealed a growing trend to stretch the envelope of his improvisational efforts. (For trivia buffs, the CD reissue contains an alternate take of the title track.)
"Inner Urge" (Blue Note). In 1964, Henderson's fourth Blue Note album expanded his musical vision even more, notably so on "El Barrio," again in the top-drawer company of Tyner and Jones, with Bob Cranshaw on bass. It's worth noting that throughout his career, he consistently surrounded himself with talented players to challenge his abilities to the fullest.
"The Milestone Years" (Milestone). Henderson did a dozen albums for the Milestone label between 1967 and 1976, all included in this eight-CD boxed set. The best of the bunch encompasses his debut Milestone outing, "The Kicker"; "Tetragon"; "If You're Not Part of the Problem . . ." (a live set from the Lighthouse in the company of trumpeter Woody Shaw); and "Joe Henderson in Japan" (in which he sounds remarkably strong with a Japanese rhythm section). Other sets find him in somewhat less intriguing efforts, flirting with rock, fusion and overdubbing.
"Four" (Verve). From 1968 (but not released until 1994), Henderson performs with the Wynton Kelly Trio (including pianist Kelly, bassist Paul Chamber and drummer Jimmy Cobb), a rhythm section that also had a history with Miles Davis in the late '50s and early '60s (notably on, among others, "Someday My Prince Will Come" and the "Live at the Blackhawk" albums). This is from a live date emphasizing stretched-out selections, allowing Henderson plenty of room to roam through standards such as "Autumn Leaves" and "Green Dolphin Street," an offbeat rendering of "On the Trail" and his take on the often-played classic title track.
"The State of the Tenor Live at the Village Vanguard" (Blue Note). Originally released as two separate albums in 1985, this double-CD set showcases Henderson in a wide-open musical setting, accompanied only by the bass of Ron Carter and the drums of Al Foster. The repertoire includes standards ("All the Things You Are," "Stella by Starlight"), originals and a few Thelonious Monk tunes ("Friday the Thirteenth" and "Ask Me Now"), and the playing reveals Henderson at his most imaginative.