Joe Henderson - tenor sax; Bill Bell - piano; Ross Traut - guitar; Ratzo Harris - bass; Ralph Penland - drums
The late, great tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson was widely regarded as an intense virtuoso who skillfully straddled the inside-outside aesthetic during the course of his four-decade career. After appearing on nearly 30 Blue Note albums (including five classics as a leader) in the early part of his career from 1963 to 1968, Henderson jumped to the Milestone label in 1967 and began experimenting with electronics on a string of potent, provocative albums, including Power to the People, In Pursuit of Blackness, If You're Not Part of the Solution, You're Part of the Problem,Black Miracle and Black Narcissus. He returned to the Blue Note label in 1986 for the two-volume The State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard and experienced a resurgence of popularity in the '90s on Verve with a consecutive string of best-selling tribute albums in 1992's Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, 1993's So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles), 1994's Double Rainbow: The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and 1997's Gershwin tribute, Porgy and Bess.
Henderson's quintet for this 1975 appearance at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco was a mix of wily veterans (himself and pianist Bill Bell) and eager newcomers (guitarist Ross Traut, bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Ralph Penland). Together they created an exhilarating blend that was positively kinetic. They coming out of the gate blazing on "Afro-Centric," a hard-driving number from Henderson's 1969 Milestone album Power to the People. Rooted in hard bop and fueled by Harris' hugely resonant, unerring walking bass lines and Penland's insistent swing factor on the kit, it's essentially a vehicle for the tenor sax great to stretch out on top of the surging pulse, and he does so in heroic fashion over the course of 28 minutes, soaring through the full range of his horn while building to some Trane-like crescendos of intensity. Guitarist Traut, a contemporary of Pat Metheny's (who actually had replaced Traut in the lineup of Paul Bley's electric band with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bruce Ditmas the year before) also showcases his flowing legato chops in a stunning six-string solo on this marathon opener. And pianist Bell, a ubiquitous presence on the Bay Area jazz scene with the likes of Buddy Montgomery and Carmen McRae and currently regarded as the well respected "Jazz Professor," follows with a solo that develops patiently and gracefully while the rhythm tandem burns beneath him. And Harris, on just his second gig with Henderson, turns in a virtuosic bass solo that shows his remarkable Eddie Gomez-like facility on the instrument. The band drops out as drummer Penland steps forward with a dynamic solo that reveals his sheer command and ability to structure a narrative on the kit.
The quintet next tackles Bronislau Kaper's oft-covered "Invitation." Another marathon showcase, it is broken up here into two parts. "Part 1" introduces the familiar, seductive theme, delivered here in strictly swinging, syncopated fashion. Henderson showcases his remarkable circular breathing technique and searing chops on his extended solo throughout this section while improvising with abandon over the chord changes. At one point, drummer Penland drops out, leaving Henderson to explore with impunity while pianist Bell comps behind him and bassist Harris keeps time. After Penland returns to the fray, the piece builds to an ecstatic, swinging peak on the strength of Henderson's no-holds-barred approach on his horn. His display of endurance, ideas and energy on this standard is simply remarkable, rivaled only by fellow tenor titan Sonny Rollins. Pianist Bell also turns in a tastefully swinging solo here. Guitarist Traut's extended improvisation begins slow at the end of "Part 1" and continues in earnest at the beginning of "Part 2" with him blowing over the barline with conviction and nonchalantly double-timing the tempo. His solo builds to an fiery peak and is followed by another virtuosic display by Harris, whose incredible facile, deep-toned bass solo is underscored by Penland's sensitive brushwork. After returning to the head to close out "Invitation," the quintet jumps right into Henderson's frantic swinger "Isotope" to close out this Great American Music Hall set on a torrid note.
Henderson, who was born in Lima, Ohio on April 24, 1937, would go on to experience critical accolades and a rewarding career as a highly respected jazz ambassador for the next 25 years following this 1975 concert. He died in San Francisco on June 30, 2001 at age 64 due to heart failure after a long battle with emphysema. But he is still revered by jazz musicians, students of the music and fans as one of the all-time greats. You can clearly hear that on this inspired set. -- Bill Milkowski