He’s not Pres-like or Bird like, not Trane-ish or New-ish. None of the stylish adjectives so commonly use to describe the work of tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. It’s evident he’s listened to the greats, to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins- to them and all the others he’s enjoyed. But he doesn’t play like them, doesn’t sound like them, Joe Henderson is a master, and like the greats, UNIQUE.
Henderson, whose brother is also a saxophonist, first came to prominence co-leading a group with Kenny Dorham in 1962-3. He was with Horace Silver from 1964-6 and co-led the Jazz Communicators with Freddie Hubbard in 1967-8. He joined the Herbie Hancock sextet during 1969-70 and in 1971 he spent four months with Blood Sweat and Tears, but quit to work with Miles Davis. However, since 1970 he has led his own groups. In the mid-1970’s he moved to California and became active in music education. In 1985 he played with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams at the televised concert One Night With Blue Note, to celebrate the relaunching of the Blue Note label with which he was once closely associated. Henderson has been prolific since, frequently called on to add authority to the work of younger musicians along with recording a series of critically acclaimed small-group sessions.
Henderson developed an influential style of modern jazz improvisation, which made far less direct use of John Coltrane’s approach than did the majority of young saxophonists during the 1960s and 1970s:He seemed to amalgamate the style of Sonny Rollins with soul music and with free jazz as typified by Ornette Coleman.
Demonstrating a high level of instrumental proficiency and a tone with a razor-sharp edge, he delivered solos with searing intensity, brief bursts of notes, shakes, thrills, and sporadic double-time figures characterized by his improvisations at this period. A similar freshness in his tune writing was so appealing to players in the 1970s that many compositions by saxophonists, otherwise drawing primarily from Coltrane, displayed the marked influence of Henderson. He has cited Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, and the classical Bartok, Hindemith, and Stravinsky as favorites.