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Henderson jams on Gershwin.

By Jon Garelick

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  Improbable jazz superstar Joe Henderson, now 60, stopped at Sanders Theatre with an all-star band Sunday night, working the latest in his string of hits, his take on the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess (Verve). For much of his career, Henderson was a musician's musician -- a tenor-saxophonist who could play in any jazz style and make it his own, from Latin and bop to modal drones and the avant-edges of the music, all laid on a strong bedrock of blues. But the edginess, and the vagaries of the post-rock-and-roll marketplace, made him something of a cult figure.

Then in 1992 he signed to Verve, which turned him into a jazz marketing miracle. He recorded an album of Billy Strayhorn tunes, then Miles Davis, then Antonio Carlos Jobim. Henderson retained his gnarly personal style -- a nubby wool tone, unpredictable harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns -- but now presented in familiar surroundings and with stellar accompaniment. You could hardly call it a sellout -- the albums were tastefully programmed, and Henderson left each with his own stamp. But the unlikely result was that one of jazz's numerous marginal giants got to cash in on the mainstream renaissance.

Henderson's Porgy and Bess is typical of the Verve alchemy. The overt crossover commercial bids are the guest vocals -- Chaka Khan singing "Summertime," Sting on "It Ain't Necessarily So." Otherwise, the Henderson idiosyncrasies are there. There are no other vocals, and instead of going big-band and cool-concerto (as Miles Davis and Gil Evans did with the work in 1958), he keeps things low-key and loose, matching his sound against an unconventional mix of vibes, piano, electric guitar, and trombone. Despite the busyness of the ensemble (there are times when everyone is comping behind the soloists), the album conveys Henderson's unusual sense of space. Instead of chugging like a marathon jam session, it breathes.

Not so at Sanders Sunday night. Verve is touring Henderson with most of the superstar band from the album (minus the singers), and the show recalled the line-up of old Jazz at the Philharmonic tours -- big-name players of varied styles jamming, following each other one solo after another, sometimes coming together as a band, sometimes not. Guitarist John Scofield plied his brainy, cubist electric guitar. Trombonist Conrad Herwig began each solo up tight to the mike, crafting compositionally shaped phrases in a balanced tone, but would soon back off and muscle repeated riffs, apparently intent on blowing the roof off the dump. Stefon Harris, looking like the youngest man on stage, played two-mallet vibes in a riff-based style and hard tone that had more to do with Lionel Hampton than Milt Jackson or Gary Burton. Except for bravura solo turns, bassist Dave Holland stuck to straight walking, never bothering to adjust his accompaniment from one soloist to the next. Drummer Pete (LaRoca) Sims likewise attacked his kit at a high dynamic level, occasionally turning it up when he spit back phrases to Herwig during the trombone solos. Tommy Flanagan, meanwhile, apparently mindless of the ruckus around him, found his way to the heart of each melody and unfurled one warm lyric statement after another.

Henderson himself was just one element of the 95-minute set (with an "I Got Rhythm" encore). After a 45-minute delay (an overrun by the afternoon's Masterworks Chorale Messiah was blamed) the band came out and charged on a 20-minute, medium-uptempo "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'." Here, Henderson's taste for varied textures -- in his playing and his band -- was evident. His solo cruised in long, bluesy, boppish runs, sputtered in double-time curlicues, shot into the upper register for some magnesium-flare sparkle clusters. Scofield's runs quoted the tune in little rhythmic eddies and then broke into against-the-beat chiming octaves. Holland's guitar-like attack was punctuated with slamming double stops, and even Harris took some long, sideswiping phrases at the harmony.

But Flanagan kept drawing your attention in tune after tune. On "Summertime," he paraphrased the melody in a series of chords that hung in the air, never breaking the legato line. On "Jasbo Brown Blues" he was in a more angular, Monkish mood, but still sustaining long, songlike phrases. On "I Loves You Porgy," even his pearly trills supported the overall architecture of the piece. He seemed to be offering an object lesson in how a part can reflect the whole. Otherwise, Joe Henderson's Porgy and Bess band worked best in its parts.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jgarelick@phx.com.


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