Compositional Style of Joe Henderson

by David Liebman

My formative musical years were the 1960s when I heard the great masters both live in New York where I lived and on recordings. The main influences were John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, followed closely by Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, all of whom were important for my jazz studies on the tenor sax. Especially in the case of Shorter and Henderson, it wasn’t only their playing style which was so influential but also their compositions. They were the “modern” guys along with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, writing and playing a new language. After all, 1959 had been a seminal year in the harmonic development of jazz with “Kind of Blue,” “Giant Steps,” and the arrival of Ornette Coleman all happening at the same time. It was mandatory for any serious young musician to study the compositions as well as the improvisational styles of these emerging artists of the new decade.

Joe occupies his own territory among the aforementioned players. As a saxophonist, I consider his style as an extension of Sonny Rollins, attributable mostly to his sense of phrasing and note choices and the fact that the principles of the bebop legacy are fundamental to both of their overall styles. However, Joe took the tenor sax elsewhere technically in areas such as his use of a unique set of expressive devices, unending variations of articulations, fast arpeggios, trills and the like, a looseness of rhythm that defied the bar line, his own personal way of using the altissimo (high) register of the horn and a tone that could go from liquid to coarse in a beat. Most of all was Joe’s unending creativity on a night to night basis. He was a real “club” musician, playing around the world with all levels of rhythm sections, always to his fullest capacity. He finally achieved commercial success in his last years. In the final analysis, Joe was one of the great chord change players of jazz history.

Along with his incredible saxophone contributions, as a writer Joe Henderson left a large imprint with several strong tendencies in his composing style. Overall, Joe paid a lot of attention to the blues, writing many tunes in the twelve bar format, most often with some harmonic twists. He also was attracted to latin and afro rhythmic feels often employing these idioms in the bass line and drum accompaniment. Most of all, Joe’s tunes necessitated that the players swing hard. In general, his pieces were uniformly in three or four quarter (odd meter was not a big thing at that time) and evoked the atmosphere of pure jazz, direct, to the point and always with some harmonic challenge that needed to be negotiated. On first glance, one might take a Joe Henderson tune for granted and think that the normal clichés and approach would work, but once you got into the song and noted that the chord cycles were unusual, you knew he was throwing down the gauntlet as far as “making the changes” was concerned. From the first tune he ever wrote, “Recorda-Me” to the classic “Inner Urge,” Joe’s tunes have become jazz standards.



As noted above the blues feeling was never far from Joe’s playing or writing style. Though he penned several orthodox blues compositions, there are a few that evidence a new way of looking at the normal twelve bar chord progression. In “Out of the Night,” Joe offers whole and half step motion for the chord changes of the melody statement, which as is often true in his compositions could either be used during the improvising choruses or one could revert to the normal minor blues changes. “Isotope” which Joe played all often in live performance employed wide intervals for the melody with a series of moving dominant seventh chords that are non-cyclical in nature. The fast blues “The Kicker” has more common V-I harmonic progressions but again with movement into unusual places. Much like Coltrane, Joe was a jazz player steeped in the blues tradition.



Joe was a big fan of the lydian scale (fourth degree of the major mode) and used its accompanying chord, the major 7th flat 5 quite often. (This chord may be more accurately called major 7th sharp 4.) The flat 5 interval was one of the signposts of the be- bop language, but its use for melodic material rather than solely as passing tones had to wait till the 1960s (and George Russell’s tome on the subject) to become part of the common vocabulary. The manner is which Joe used this chord compositionally and in his playing was a music lesson that became required homework for the next generation. (Wayne Shorter was more responsible for the lydian augmented or flat 5/sharp 5 chord.) “Inner Urge” is the classic tune for this chord using it for most of the first part of the tune, while the pure major prevails for the second half. “Shade of Jade” also has a large percentage of major 7 flat 5 chords, in this case once again with a lot of whole and half step root motion. “Afro Centric” is another composition with great use of this lydian harmonic color.



The II-V-I progression is the cornerstone of bebop as it clearly outlines classic diatonic root movement (subdominant/dominant/tonic relationship) and any subsequent improvised lines created over this harmonic pattern have a high degree of clarity and a satisfying balance of tension. By the 1960s, this well worn bebop progression started to be placed in unusual junctures, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, coexisting with more modal sections (eight or more bar sections of dorian, mixolydian scales or others). It was a period when the new (mentioned above in the 1959 reference) was liberally mixed with the old. Both Joe and Wayne were well aware of the potency of placing the new and old together and became major exponents of this composing style. Joe liked to use a II-V progression in the middle of songs as in the classic “Serenity” where this progression appears several times along with the major 7th flat 5 chords. “Recorda Me” represents one of the most orthodox uses of the II-V progression and is the most well known of Joe’s tunes, probably for the reasons of ease of playing and familiarity. The composition “Jinriksha” has a few strategically placed progressions, but again at unusual junctures.



Another musical aspect, somewhat related to the II-V progression which became widely used in the ‘60s by the aforementioned composers was unusual root motion. With “Giant Steps” recorded in 1959 by Coltrane paving the way along with some of Thelonius Monk’s music, it seems that the new generation felt that root movement need not be so predictable or orthodox. “Inner Urge” has a distinct pattern towards the end of the tune descending down a minor third, then ascending up a half step which is actually quite reminiscent of “Giant Steps” in its overall sound though the pattern differs; “Punjab” has once again a lot of whole and half step movement as does “Shade of Jade.” One must remember that when these progressions were first being played, often at fast tempos, it was new to the listener and initiate musician. Joe’s music was very much a part of this 1960s harmonic development.



With all the emphasis on harmony, one shouldn’t forget that Henderson’s melodies were both a logical outcome of the harmony as well as complete statements on their own, a measure of a well constructed melodic thought. The melodies fit the chord changes perfectly but also maintained a sense of lyricism, a hard feat to accomplish. One of his most beautiful themes is “Black Narcissus” which sounds so obvious, it could easily be taken for over simplistic. “Inner Urge” once again shines forth, this time with a “common tone” melody for the first half, followed by an arpeggio type line across the moving changes, all making perfect sense. Even the melody on “Recorda Me” following the normal II-V changes retains a sense of lyricism. Somehow, Joe could make the listener or player remember the melody after you heard the tune, without necessarily ever realizing that the harmony was so sophisticated. A curiosity exists in that a lot of the tunes feature chords in the keys of Db, Gb and Ab major-all flat and rather bright “keys,” rather unusual for a tenor player. This is an interesting anomaly.



Though some of the tunes besides the twelve bar blues songs were in eight bar patterns, Joe did have a few odd measure forms. For example the blowing form of “Punjab” is eighteen bars, while “Jinriksha” has a form of sixteen followed by twenty bars. “Serenity” is fourteen bars while “Afro Centric” is twenty six bars in length. But somehow with Joe’s tunes, the forms feel completely natural, a consequence of his melodies.


Finally, one must not forget how Joe played over standards like “Invitation” and Monk’s “Ask Me Now” among others that were invariably part of a Joe Henderson performance. He owned those tunes, playing them like he wrote them. Although for the most part Joe didn’t write much new material after the ‘60s, his legacy during that decade stands as one of the great pillars of modern jazz composition and are required “reading” for all subsequent generations of improvisers worldwide.