By Dan Jonas
One of the ways my friends and colleagues nerd out on jazz involves comparing jazz to sports. While I’m not personally in favor of turning jazz in to a competition (I’m honestly not sure what winning means), it’s fun to rank, compare and evaluate performers (and performances). “Who’s the Michael Jordan of jazz?” “Who’s the best jazz ‘quarterback’?” Whatever – you can imagine the turns late night conversations about jazz might take. Ranking your favorite jazz musicians the same way talking heads on ESPN might rank players or teams or highlights is a great way to get the discussion going.
I bring this up in my first record review because there’s a commonality in many sports comparisons – many athletes today are bigger, faster and stronger, and the games have clearly changed and evolved. Any discussion of baseball’s greats invariably involves invoking the “Dead Ball Era.” Conversations on the greatest quarterbacks in football get mired down in the fact that the passing game is central to football in a way it didn’t used to be. Pick a sport, the talking points remain the same. Jazz is not really any different. Despite what those more critical of jazz might have you believe, it has evolved. Players are better, more proficient. Recordings sound more polished. Whether that’s aesthetically better or detrimental to jazz might be plausibly up for discussion. But the facts pretty much stand on their own.
MORE OUT THAN IN
I come to this album with brand new ears – as a trumpet player, I checked out my share of Freddie and Lee and Clifford. I listened to Bird and Trane and Dexter. But Joe Henderson has been a late addition to my listening, and although many of my jazz friends have told me to check this album out, this is really the first time I’ve given it a critical listen. And my first reaction, for better or worse, was that the group didn’t sound great. The head on In ‘N Out is a mess. Henderson’s solo is sequence madness, choosing new themes, sequencing and then discarding them. Tyner’s comping is relentless, his left hand so active it comes perilously close to getting in the way of his own solo. KD seems lost. Literally. My first listen of the tune I was convinced he got lost in the changes and that Henderson takes a couple choruses at the end to give everyone in the band a chance to regroup.
A SECOND LISTEN (and a third, fourth, ….)
Now, I’ve listened to it a few more times and my stance has softened slightly, but the overall impression of the energy of the album remains the same. They don’t seem comfortable with Henderson’s tunes. Henderson writes great tunes – Punjab is a personal favorite of mine – but they rank among the more challenging jazz literature, and require serious study to pull off. The contrast between the opening three numbers – In’ N Out, Punjab, Serenity (Henderson’s tunes) – and the other tunes – Short Story and Brown’s Town (KD’s tunes) – couldn’t be more stark. The group crushes KD’s tunes. The easier harmonic material and slower tempos allow the group to really showcase their amazing (and now legendary) skills. Don’t get me wrong. The group sounds great, and the more I listen to this album, the more I appreciate it. Elvin is unbelievable, and the rhythm section really plays together with an energy that almost threatens to overwhelm the horn soloist. Henderson sounds phenomenal – his own tunes don’t present a challenge for him. KD’s solo on Short Story is virtuosic, and Tyner doesn’t ever let off the gas. Richard Davis also holds his own.
But that first time I heard it still lingers in the back of my head – and that’s where the sports analogy finally comes in. I couldn’t help but think that if I heard Chris Potter, John Swana and an equally talented rhythm section play these tunes that it wouldn’t be different – more polished. But that’s the difference, isn’t it? In 1964, no one had played these tunes. Now everyone’s heard them and played them. It’s like comparing Roger Maris to Barry Bonds, or Johnny Unitas to Peyton Manning. The game has changed. In’ N Out might not stand the test of time as well as some of the other albums from the period, but it’s part of a larger body of work that forms the foundation for “modern” jazz. It deserves a place on every jazz lover’s record shelf (or iTunes playlist).
Joe Henderson = Phillip Rivers (Gifted performer who gets the job done, in his own totally quirky weird way)
Kenny Dorham = Doug Flutie (Underwhelming/Understated. Somehow always at the same time)
McCoy Tyner = Carmelo Anthony (Fantastic player, but has a tendency to, for better or worse, always be VERY involved)
Richard Davis = Any current Major League Catcher (Nameless, Faceless performers since Posasda and Varitek retired, but you can’t have a performance without them!)
Elvin Jones = Adrian Peterson (Nobody stops either one of these guys. They OWN it.)
Reviewing The Classics is a series of album re-reviews authored by Dan Jonas, with the goal of placing classic jazz albums in a 21st Century context. To find out more about Dan, visit his website danjonasmusic.com.