Rediscoveries #2: Joe Henderson, Blue Note and Beyond

Called "the phantom" by fellow musicians and dubbed the "bearded, goateed astronaut of the tenor sax" by a close friend, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, the enigmatic Joe Henderson recorded five albums for the Blue Note label that are uniformly regarded as jazz classics. Mosaic Records has gathered those records—Page One, Our Thing, In 'n Out, Inner Urge, Mode for Joe—plus Henderson's sideman dates and alternate takes for Blue Note for a limited-edition, five-CD box set, The Complete Joe Henderson Blue Note Studio Sessions (Mosaic Records MD5-271).

Henderson's music on Blue Note is cerebral but earthy; his dark, arid saxophone gusts soar with friendly ferocity. Such Henderson standards as "Blue Bossa," "Recorda Me," "Caribbean Fire Dance," "Punjab," and "A Shade of Jade" share the rare quality of sounding eternally fresh, inner seams bristling with energy and Henderson's unique sonic logic.

Mastered from 24-bit transfers from Rudy Van Gelder's original tapes, the discs all sound clear, rich, and dynamic, and the box is still available. Grab yours while you can, though: It's a limited edition, and if you want a physical copy of this music (as opposed to streaming), it's hard to find elsewhere.1 Are you listening, Blue Note?

1968 marked the end of Henderson's contract with Blue Note—regrettable, since his music fit well there—but his career lasted decades longer. His subsequent recordings for Milestone, Red, Enja, Contemporary, and MPS reveal a fertile, restless composer who embraced new sounds and styles within magnetic compositions and an increasingly avantgarde style.

1968's The Kicker (Milestone MSP 9008) sounds like a lost Blue Note album, presenting deeply felt hard bop explorations alongside covers of "Nardis" (Miles Davis), "Chelsea Bridge" (Strayhorn), and "Without a Song" (Eliscu, Rose, Youmans). The sound is thin but acceptable.

1969's Power to the People (Milestone MSP 902) features an outstanding band, with Mike Lawrence on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano and Fender Rhodes, Ron Carter on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. "Black Narcissus," "Afro-Centric," and "Isotope" (which first appeared on Inner Urge) show the evolution of Henderson's songwriting and the ratcheting-up of his tornadolike soloing. "Foresight and Afterthought" is basically a drums-vs-tenor battle, and the reading of Jerome Moross's tranquil, lonely "Lazy Afternoon"—a Henderson landmark—is stunning. Soundwise, though, it's a typical 1970s studio recording, lacking depth and space and thin and splashy in the treble.

In Pursuit of Blackness (Milestone MSP 9034) divvies up material recorded in the studio and at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California. It's a hard-driving set, with drummer Lenny White and bassist "Stan" Clarke fueling potent solos by Henderson, trumpeter Woody Shaw, and keyboardist George Cables. The Henderson samba standard "No Me Esqueca" is joined by a blazing "Shade of Jade" and "Invitation" and the raging "Mind Over Matter." Henderson's huge choruses are matched by Shaw's molten trumpet. The sound is clear but arid; it would sound better on audiophile vinyl made from lacquers cut from original tapes.

Recorded in 1972, Black Is the Color, another Milestone issue (MSP 9040), is filled with long improvisations: It's a jam session. The original idea of creating a free-jazz record was deep-sixed, so Henderson and producer Orrin Keepnews overdubbed synthesizers on deep-funk workouts incorporating percussionist Airto Moriera, bassist Dave Holland, and DeJohnette. The music flows from heady funk to full-on, mind-bending avant-garde. Henderson's soloing is powerful and inspired. This is recorded in good-sounding stereo—better than previous hard-panned stereo releases.

But couldn't an audiophile reissue, in any medium, include bonus tracks left on the studio floor?


1973's Multiple (Milestone M-9050), an album that fetches crazy prices online as high point, from DeJohnette's simmering "Bwaata" and the eerie vocals and organ sighs of "Song for Sinners" to the funky Dave Holland vehicle "Turned Around." Taking cues, apparently, from Bitches Brew and the Art Ensemble of Chicago's BapTizum, Multiple is a timeless capsule of Joe Henderson magic.

Hoping for a hit, 1976's Black Miracle (Milestone M-9066) was tracked with L.A. session players including drummer Harvey Mason and guitarist Lee Ritenour. It includes covers of Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" and Dawilli Gonga's (George Duke's) Zappa-friendly fusion "Old Slippers." It's almost a CTI tribute—bold horn lines challenge chunky guitar in dense arrangements—but Joe's horn holds court; his miraculous tenor tempest is the main attraction. It's now the mid-1970s, and the sound is rich and flat—almost greasy.


1981's Relaxin' at Camarillo (Contemporary Records 14006)—the title echoes Charlie Parker—features Henderson blowing majestically alongside Chick Corea, Richard Davis, and Tony Williams, plus some highly skilled alternates on bass and drums. It's a return to hard bop classicism.

Joe Henderson would go on to find well-deserved commercial success and fame in the 1990s on the newly revived Verve label.

But here's the thing: Henderson's post–Blue Note output is hard to track down in physical form. Sure, most of these recordings can be streamed in CD resolution from Tidal or Qobuz. But few if any are currently in print, and most are hard to find and/or expensive on the used market.

Fortunately, all the records I described above are on the Milestone or Contemporary labels—both part of the Concord Group. Craft Recordings is Concord's reissue label.

Craft Recordings, are you listening?
(1) Several are available in the Blue Note 80th Anniversary and Classic Vinyl series.

JoeHarley's picture

JoeHen also returned to Blue Note in 1985, when his two State of the Tenor - Live at the Village Vanguard trio recordings with Ron Carter and Al Foster were issued. These were recently reissued in the Tone Poet series for Blue Note. (Shameless plug.)

Jim Austin's picture

Much obliged. Contribution welcome. I was aware of this when editing--as was Ken while writing. But that's a live recording--an amazing, wonderful one, and a Tone Poet that I've bought but not yet received.

Thanks for the work you do.

Jim Austin, Editor

JoeHarley's picture

These great Joe Henderson titles have also been reissued in the BN80/Classic Blue Note LP Series recently and remain in print.