19. Simplicity itself

Loose Change. From Joe Henderson. The State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard. 1985

Joe Henderson’s stellar late career profile reached its heights on a string of starry releases for Verve, but this slightly earlier live set on Blue Note was the one that first reminded many that one of the jazz royalty was still at the peak of his creative powers. I loved every note of this when it came out, and have never stopped listening to it. Like Rollins at the the Vanguard nearly three decades earlier it’s a saxophone trio to hold in your mind for comparison with all the others that come along. Few come close.

The towering success of the date had a lot to do with the rhythm section, naturally. Al Foster is the subtlest of drummers, and manages to be somehow insistent and unobtrusive at the same time (not quite like Elvin Jones on Sonny’s Vanguard date, then). Henderson played with many great bass players. There are records with Charlie Haden, Christian McBride, Rufus Reid and Dave Holland – a trio concert in London with Foster and Holland a few years after this remains one of the best single night’s music I’ve ever heard. On this tour, I guess it was –

Even so, Ron Carter – who played on a fine Henderson quartet date with Chick Corea and Billy Higgins five years earlier – seems the ideal foil for the tenor player. On the mixed programme of standards and outstanding modern jazz compositions (by Sam Rivers, Monk, Mingus, Silver) Carter contributes as much invention as the horn player. But there’s more. Carter was 84 last week, and here, on his own tune, he offers a lesson in rhythm that shows why he features on over 2,000 recordings (the Guiness Book says the most ever for a bass player).

It’s an exercise in extreme simplicity, barely a theme at all. The little riffy pattern pushes Henderson firmly towards his most Rollins-like moments, toying lightly with the basic phrases, now bearing down, now adopting a more fluting tone, moving in and out of rhythm with such ease you don’t really notice.

What you do notice, all the time, is the solidity of the bass, repeating its main figure faithfully, while Foster taps rims and makes a small splash on the cymbals. I find it mesmerising – so simple, so steady, with occasional tiny variations when provoked by the saxophonist, always succeeded by immediate return to the basic groove. It could hardly be more basic. In the bass solo, Carter essentially ends up playing the simplest form of rock and roll for a few bars, but still with a jazz feel. Why do more? Who else can play a simple bass line like Carter? It’s not quite the simplest he ever recorded – try this one for comparison, though he does more with his solo here – but it may be the grooviest.

Loose Change

Loose Change was programmed half way through the first LP from the Vanguard sessions (the two original LP releases were combined on a later CD), and the rest of the cuts show amply why doing more is good, too. Almost all of them are, in some way, more substantial than this one, and equally memorable in their way. But I bet you won’t get this one out of your head today if you listen to it.

Full set

Why the No 19? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify


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