Jazz: Playing time, and making a living is easy

The career of the great American tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson makes for a case-study in the interplay of art and commerce. Phil Johnson enjoys a happy mix of sweet swing in a triumphant version of `Porgy and Bess'.

The subject of jazz in the era of strategic planning might make a nifty topic for a doctoral thesis in Business Studies someday. What's more, while the rub between the dictates of corporate structures and the free play of creative improvisation has never been a friction-less encounter, it has at least provided some great music.

The concept of Charlie Parker with strings might have originated as a marketing man's conceit, but, what the hell, Charlie liked it, and the result was a wonderful mix that, 40 years on, sounds like exactly the sort of cross-over project that everyone from Elvis Costello to Bjork is up to these days.

Since beginning his contract with Verve - the same company that got Charlie together with the violins and cellos - Henderson has delivered a series of grand projects that can hardly be faulted, despite their big-business context.

Albums dedicated to the music of Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis and Antonio Carlos Jobim have been both Grammy-laden and critically revered, and in the process Henderson has become the most lauded of all contemporary instrumentalists. The latest episode in this serial-homage to the music of other composers is based on George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, already the subject of a jazz version by Miles Davis and Gil Evans in 1958.

While you can take the contributions of vocalists Sting and Chaka Khan on one track each either as a kindly bonus from those nice men in suits at Polygram, or as a serious lapse of taste, it's difficult to get sniffy about it, for Henderson's Porgy and Bess is mostly a triumph. The music swings, the reassuringly expensive rhythm section of Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Tommy Flanagan doesn't put a foot wrong, and Henderson himself is able to indulge his deep, cerebral and impeccably-ordered solos to the max. Even the normally dodgy business whereby the company gets one of its stars to appear on the records of another in order to maximise the horizontal integration of resources, is rendered with uncommon taste, spiky guitarist John Scofield complementing smooth Joe with surprising sympathy.

When one encounters Henderson at the formidable Hotel St James in Paris, where he is billeted for promotional duties, the price of corporate success is made clear. Just in from Tokyo Henderson is dog-tired after a day of interviews. Sixty years old this year, rake-thin of frame and made cutely owlish in appearance by his round spectacles, Henderson is one of jazz's intellectuals, happy to talk about his art for hours.

The Porgy and Bess concept came, he says, from one of the Verve vice- presidents, but he was more than happy to oblige. "I don't know who'd disagree with that," he says. "There's so much wonderful music in there and we thought we would offer it to people who might not need the entire opera but can use it as a kind of minimalist version."

He's diplomatically full of praise for Sting and Chaka Khan, and talks of how working with vocalists when he was starting out helped him to learn his trade. "You would take a standard tune like `Stella by Starlight' or `Body and Soul', and often a singer would forever sing it in another key. Do that for a couple of years and you've been through a lot of strange keys. You try changing it a step, and then a step and a half, and it'll fit in that key, but we just don't know it! You start to move into that other key and all of a sudden you discover something - a different pitch, a different shade of blue, or a blue-green against a dark blue. For a long time tunes represented themselves to me as colours, as an auditory transition. We'll do this one in blue, I'd say, or we'll do this in orange. It didn't mean anything to anyone but me."

When asked about how the experience of recording with Verve compares to his time with the legendary Blue Note label in the Sixties, Henderson's tiredness disappears. "There's a world of difference, but that was a very happy label. It was like a big happy family and there was no pretension at all. We just had great fun, but they didn't have the resources of Polygram to get records out to the public. Blue Note was perhaps good enough without that, a two-man and one-woman show, and they sold enough records like that. They were quite content to sell 3,000 copies, which was great, it was a minor hit."

For Henderson, Blue Note represented a laboratory. "I came into the music finding the lab to be the friendliest place I could be and I found a comfort area there, just working out melodies, new skills, new approaches for my way of improving, starting the rhythm here, starting it there. It was a kind of Einsteinian approach and I never thought about publicity, it just had no relevance to my brain at all, and I think the career suffered because with Verve, you're pretty much guaranteed exposure."

His Blue Note albums, which were collected into a box-set by EMI last year, were recorded in one day each, with two days for rehearsal (a luxury for the time). "They would sound like we had been playing together for years," he remembers fondly. "It was the greatest way to become familiar with the music: You rehearse the tune, you listen to it, and then you make a take on it." Though Porgy and Bess might have taken a little longer, and Sting and Chaka Khan never recorded for Blue Note, Henderson's signature- sound still shines through and art might well have triumphed over commerce after all.

`Porgy and Bess' is out on Verve

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