Monday, September 10, 2007

In Rotation: The Elements

What? The Elements by Joe Henderson and a cast of luminaries, notably Alice Coltrane, Charlie Haden and Michael White (who also features prominently on what is possibly my favourite recording of all time).

Why this? Why today? The short answer? Because it was piled on the table of marked-down last-chance imports that the folks at CD Warehouse couldn’t otherwise sell, next to all the Manic Street Preachers maxi-singles and eurodance compilations. Best guess is that somebody had it special ordered, then balked at the price.

But this gets a second (and third, and…) listen thanks to its heady blend of earth and air and fire and water. I know that comes off a bit New Age-y, but I stand by it. Henderson’s always had a foot on the jukejoint’s earthen floor, and Alice Coltrane’s on hand to lend the proceedings a celestial vibe. Any one of these players has the chops to bring fire when it’s called for. And Haden’s bass is like deep water. You see, it’s elemental.

Like rock, The New Thing arrived in the ‘70s, looked around and asked, “Now what?” Thinking Miles had found the true way, a lot of good people fell victim to bad fusion. Others welcomed and worked toward assimilating the new European influence. A third stream pushed forward in the direction Coltrane had been leaning when he died. Count this among that lot. It’s a little bit Pharoah Sanders, a little Electric Byrd.

Everyone’s a critic, of course, and in this case the critics aren’t kind. My usual resources – namely All Music and Cook & Morton – have very little to say in favour of this record. “[H]ardly useful employment for one of the premier jazz improvisers,” says the Penguin. “Applesauce,” I say. Alright, maybe there’s a touch too much reverb on Henderson’s tenor during “Fire,” and closer “Earth” has some very dated moments. Consider Kenneth Nash’s narration: “Peace… love… hope… time… children of the soil rejoice, for tomorrow was… yesterday never is…” That sort of stuff. But then the drummer gets a little funky, and White starts to lay some shit down, and Joe starts squawking like he’s looking for a bar to walk on. It’s right about then that your mind makes the Earth, Wind & Fire connection.

It’s also worth listening for the crazy sounds on “Water.” Henderson makes his horn lick like some Sonny Sharrock guitar run and the discombobulated listener hunts in vain for the Tzadik logo on the liners.

The Elements wins my favour for some serious grooves, as well as some fine individual moments. But don’t misunderstand, it’s not my favourite work by Joe. No, that’s in an entirely different vein, one that probably comes more easily to mind when folks think about J.H. It’s a hard bop thing, and it comes on a record by the one and only Grant Green, entitled Idle Moments, a Blue Note side from 1963. On the somnambulant (and aptly titled) title track, the whole band - guitar and vibes included - shuffles along like an overpaid rhythm section for nearly eight minutes before Henderson enters, breathily, and suddenly you have the image in your mind of a group stalling for time until the horn drags his ass into the club and up onto the bandstand. But then he spends the next three minutes stealing your girl, and you can’t blame her for leaving.

But this? This is nothing like that.

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