Joe Henderson was one of the most consistent jazz musicians of the post-bop era, a tenor saxophone player whose every solo was intelligent, architecturally sound, and bristling with invention. He passed through several phases of a rewarding career: an early purple patch as a sideman and leader for Blue Note in the 1960s; a period of intriguing fusion-esque experiments with Milestone between 1967 and 1975; a stunning return to Blue Note in the mid-’80s; then a triumphant — and Grammy-winning — series of concept albums for Verve between 1991 and his death in 2001. Throughout, his tenor sound and his unflinchingly original and fresh solo style changed little. As another writer once noticed, he was always in the middle of a great solo.
Joe was not a Miles Davis-like chameleon. His early Blue Note work was driving and smart, an alternative to Coltrane and Wayne Shorter that scratched a similar but not identical itch in listeners’ ears. His later discs for Blue Note and Verve were more mature and commanding, perhaps, but they delivered the same goods without ever repeating themselves. It was that middle patch of discs — the ones recorded during the “classic rock era” that left so many jazz musicians flummoxed by how to deal with electricity and rock rhythms — that are in many ways the most telling about the kind of musician Henderson was.
Power to the People was Henderson’s third disc for producer Orrin Keepnews and Milestone, and it was the first to deal head-on with rock and soul music. The year was 1969, simultaneous with Miles Davis’s two seminal discs In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. And Keepnews recruited folks who had been part of Miles’s transition toward funk and electricity: Herbie Hancock (in whose semi-electric sextet Henderson was then playing) on keyboards, Ron Carter on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. For a Miles-ian touch, a young trumpet player named Mike Lawrence was also brought in on two tracks.
Those two cuts (“Afro-Centric” and “Power to the People”) plus “Black Narcissus” feature Hancock’s distinctive Fender Rhodes electric piano, interlocking with a polyrhythmically free DeJohnette and Carter at his most funky and tight. The two quintet tracks allow the trio of accompanists to bubble and brew with soul pleasure, though it never really abandons its identity as a jazz trio that is playing the harmonic changes when necessary to drive the soloists forward. These tracks do not “swing” in the usual sense, but they also are not the kind of overt funk that Miles was beginning to play with. Never are they the kind of fusion cotton candy that many of Henderson’s contemporaries (such as Freddie Hubbard) would record for the CTI label. Rather, it is arguable that Henderson was fooling around with a jazz-rock “fusion” that was simply weighted more toward the boogaloo funk of the earlier ’60s than “easy listening” or the acid-tinged edge that would eventually lead Miles to Pangea and beyond. Regardless of philosophy, these are compelling tracks, giving the soloists long stretches of ostinato to play over with amazing freedom. Hancock’s workout on “Power” is as fine as he gets, and the horns gobble up great gobs of harmony, both the leader and Lawrence staying “inside” for long, tangled stretches before venturing significantly beyond.
These electric experiments, however, are not one-dimensional, and they are only a part of the album. “Black Narcissus” features Hancock’s Rhodes, but it is a more traditional ballad that just happens to use the Rhodes sound to emphasize both the delicate sections and the sudden build to forte at the end of each chorus. Carter and Hancock coax the most delicate sounds from their instruments, creating a near-abstract impressionism on some go-rounds. Henderson responds with an airy tone that captivates. Just as delicate is the bluer (and acoustic) Ron Carter tune “Opus One-Point-Five”. With these tracks, Henderson demonstrates that there is only a small distance between the acoustic and electric approaches, a truism that too little music in that era could demonstrate.
Of course, when the band is simply playing straight-up post-bop jazz, all is right with the world as well. Here is the first appearance of the Henderson-penned standard “Isotope”, as well as a perfectly balanced mid-tempo take on “Lazy Afternoon”. The most adventurous track — and the one that looks forward to the most commanding of Henderson’s later work — is “Foresight and Afterthought”, a wholly improvised blues performance for the trio of just Henderson, Carter, and DeJohnette. The drummer is playing directly in the line of Elvin Jones, with Henderson naturally taking on the Coltrane role. But here, Henderson’s great strengths distinguish him: a sense of clear structure, a tone that moves from breathy to steely and through ranges of personality in between, and an approach to “free” playing that remains smartly tethered to tonality. On the middle section here, the leader plays with micro-tonality and even ugliness, but it brings him back to consonance and swing before long.
Like so much jazz made around 1969, Power to the People is transitional and shifting. But happily, it is steady and ready Joe Henderson at the helm. He makes the free playing sound hard-driving, the rock experimentation sound within the tradition, and the more traditional playing sound out ahead of the pack. Not an embarrassment from a by-gone era, not the musical equivalent of embroidered bell-bottoms, this 1969 Joe Henderson record is a strong reminder of a player who never faltered.