Category Archives: Jazz Vocalist

If You’re Not Part of the Solution…Joe Henderson Quintet

It is high barbecue season here in South London; indeed I’m leaving to attend one shortly. What’s the weather like? Rain is likely, of course, although it will almost inevitably be followed by blistering heat during the working week that is only hours away.

Let’s go somewhere else. To a place where warm nights give way to warmer and far sunnier days. By the seaside where the surf is always up. What we need next to the beach is one of the great Jazz rooms and one of the finest tenor saxophonists on the stand with a new and exciting band. A snap of the fingers takes us to California. To Hermosa Beach. To The Lighthouse. Joe Henderson is playing a set which ranges from his songbook classics through to a lengthy slab of jazz funk. We need somewhere to dance. Another snap of the fingers and just through the door there’s a pier (actually we’ll skip that bit as apparently it has been done recently at this very location in the film La La Land).

Hermosa Beach lies just south of Los Angeles Airport on a west facing strip of coastline that sweeps north via Venice Beach, Santa Monica towards Malibu, sort of like Morecambe Bay perhaps although Morecambe lacks a distant Hollywood sign?

Enough! Let’s get back to the music on the turntable. Despite most of the albums I look at here having been ripped from CDs, vinyl is what we’ve got today. It is a UK pressing of a Milestone album which has been licensed to Ace and the sound is good without being amazing. I grade my copy of the record as being in VG+ condition with the cover also weighing in as VG+ and I’m very pleased to have it.

By 1970 Joe Henderson had contributed to over 30 classic Blue Note sessions as a sideman and had led five of his own great recordings for the label. In 1967 he signed a recording deal with Orrin Keepnews at Milestone Records which was to result in a dozen titles bearing his name eventually being issued.

This album was the fourth of these. In late September 1970 Henderson played a short residency at the famous Lighthouse Cafe at Hermosa Beach in California. Label boss Keepnews was excited by the new band that Henderson had assembled that summer and he had a hunch that they would work particularly well as a live unit. Arrangements were made to record the gigs and the resulting album captures a strong set.

A track entitled Caribbean Fire Dance has got to be lively and this take on it features flames aplenty. Henderson and Woody Shaw spark off the lively and percussive rhythm section which fans up a conflagration. Cables on electric piano offers up a vibes-like sound reminiscent of Bobby Hutcherson. It sounds great on record and must have been splendid live.

‘Round Midnight starts with a pensive exploration of the tune from Henderson’s tenor over a light reverberating accompaniment from the electric piano. Henderson then breaks out into double time Hard Bop territory with Ron McClure racing up and down the fretboard of his bass as he keeps pace with the leader during this middle section. After a brief piano and bass duet Henderson slows the tempo and brings the track to a calm and delicate conclusion during which the appreciative audience is completely silent. Cables and Shaw were to later accompany Dexter Gordon on another version of this standard when he performed at The Village Vanguard in December 1976.

Cedar Walton’s Mode For Joe has long been a personal favourite. Henderson’s long solo is a delight to listen to on this piece which brings the first side of the album to a close.

The origin of name of the title track, If You’re Not Part of The Solution, You’re Part of The Problem is a quotation from Eldridge Cleaver and makes passing reference to Henderson’s commitment to civil rights and equality. It is a lengthy jazz funk workout in a style that would have sounded up to date at the time of release but which was soon imitated by lesser talents, though it still sounds engaging. Ron McClure delivers a solid electric bass line throughout. It is a treat to hear and you can listen to it here courtesy of YouTube:-

To play, touch or click on the arrow.

There’s a reading of his mentor, Kenny Dorham’s Blue Bossa on which Henderson’s tenor solo is tuneful and confines itself to the conventional range of the instrument before Woody Shaw takes a turn.

The very short Closing Theme runs for 47 seconds and does what it says, before the band are name checked and receive due applause.

If You’re Not Part of the Solution… is well worth tracking down if only to trace the continuing development of a great musician. It is a very a different recording to that made by the acoustic trio featured on the two excellent State of The Tenor live albums from the mid-1980’s. I’m not yet familiar with the other Milestone recordings although, over time, I will make it my business to track them down and report back here.

Henderson relocated to the West Coast in the early 1970’s, where he combined recording and live performance with teaching. Sadly, he passed away aged 64 in 2001. I never got to see him live and that is something that I regret. However, the live recordings remain and provide an opportunity to appreciate his playing. Other than learning of a brief period spent with Earth, Wind and Fire there is little readily available on the net concerning Henderson’s life in the 1970’s. However, after a search on Google Scholar an article in a journal’ The Black Perspective on Music (Vol 5, No. 1. Spring 1977) by Frank Kofsky suggested that in the mid-70’s he was probably playing less than 10 gigs a year in the San Francisco area and largely living on royalty payments, studio work and a small income from academic activities. A later triumphant return to the spotlight was to come in the 1980’s but I will leave that for another day.

The band etc.:- Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone); Woody Shaw (trumpet & flugelhorn); George Cables (electric piano); Ron McClure (bass & electric bass track 4); Lenny White (drums); Tony Waters (percussion). Recorded live September 25, 25 & 26 1970 at The Lighthouse Cafe, Hermosa Beach, California. Produced by: Orrin Keepnews. Recording Engineer: Bernie Grundman. Photographs: Philip Melnick. Design: John Murello. Issued in 1970: Fantasy Records Milestone MX 9028.

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Heart of Memphis: Robin McKelle

Heart of Memphis

In February I saw Fred Wesley and PeeWee Ellis perform at Ronnie Scott’s and wrote about their performance here. I’m not a great lover of jazz vocals, especially those delivered by a certain type of supper club vocalist but I do my best not to write any musician off too early. After all, if you handed me a tenor sax and said ‘entertain us’, I’m confident you would be making your excuses pretty sharpish. Robin McKelle, who they introduced on vocals, confirmed the old saying that there are rubies to be found amongst the dust- and the world of jazz vocals really needs a good rub over with the Mr Sheen. Gifted with one of those voices that can be both raunchy and subtle, Robin McKelle has a world-class talent.

Regular readers may recall that I’ve made a commitment to write about one new recording by a contemporary artist every month. Kevin Flanagan and RipRap were first up and April’s recording is Heart of Memphis by Robin McKelle and The Flytones.

Robin has already released four albums but I’m not familiar with these. Heart of Memphis took her down the Mississippi to Scott Bomar’s Electraphonic Studio to record an album steeped in a classic 60’s Stax and Muscle Shoals sauce. Purists may feel I’m stretching the jazz angle a bit here but I’m sure many of you will be interested to hear about her.

About To Be Your Baby gets things off to a good start with an exclamation from a strong woman, well capable of giving as good as she gets in love and knowing which way the world was turning when a lover ‘…went and started actin’ shady’.

Good Time is a medium paced dancer, which could probably cut it as a slower number on a Northern Soul dance floor. Robin’s vocals are a husky treat on this one. Next up is the classic, Please Don’t Let Me Misunderstood which she punches on the nose and knocks out with one mighty effort. Control Yourself has a 80’s flavoured sould ballad feel to it. Forgetting You is a country song- not a genre that I’m wild about but this song smoulders and then burns. If I’d been producing this one, the horns would have been crisper and more to the fore- but what do I know?

Heart of Memphis just makes me want to go there- perhaps one day soon? A fine song, written by Robin and perhaps the standout track for me.

Like A River offers you the opportunity to take a look and see what you think, courtesy of YouTube

http://youtube.com/watch?v=0xhVvjOU_Wk

To watch and listen, click or touch the arrow.

Easier That Way has a lighter musical air to it, although it’s message is one of nostalgia for better and simpler past days. Once again Robin captures a feeling and takes us there. What You Want puts a lover on the spot and sorts them out with a direct question. Well put and well delivered!

Good & Plenty is another song about a woman standing up for herself and ending a relationship where she got ‘…herself good and plenty of nothing’. It’s an energetic band workout and is likely be a highlight of a live set from The Flytones.

Baby You’re The Best is presented in an 80’s style and in this context is a breather between two strong tracks, because Down With The Ship is another potential anthem- a big soul ballad that should be heard and appreciated widely. It’s Over This Time is as described, a closer in which the singer points to a line in the sand and makes it clear that the subject is stating that a bad relationship is over with a big full stop.

So that’s Heart of Memphis. I’ve resisted the temptation to mention and compare any of the pantheon of great female vocalists, because Robin McKelle has her own distinctive style and can stand up in her own right. I really enjoyed her live with Fred and PeeWee doing the funky material and will be on the case when she plays her next London dates. If you want to know more about Robin McKelle you can read here about this Rochester, NY State born performer, who herself taught vocals at Boston’s revered Berklee School of Music. Catch her fast in the small venues because I feel that the big stages beckon. While we wait, you are unlikely to be disappointed by Heart of Memphis, or The Flytones whose musicianship complements their vocalist with performances that confirm their own talents.

The band etc: Robin McKelle (vocals, percussion); Ben Stivers (organ, piano); Derek Nievergelt (bass); Adrian Harpham (drums); Al Street (guitars); Mark Franklin (trumpet); Kirk Smothers (tenor & baritone saxophone); Danielle Hill & Susanne Marshall (background vocals). Production: Scott Bomar, Electaphonic Studios, Memphis Tennessee. Sony Music, OKeh. 2014

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