Music » Critic's Choice

Joe Henderson / Ernie Watts




No, they won't perform in the same band, but the appearance on the same stage of the Joe Henderson Trio and Charlie Haden's Quartet West--featuring Ernie Watts--presents the opportunity to compare two unusually popular jazz saxophonists. In the last several years, Henderson has gone from jazz-world darling to one of the most lionized players of the last quarter century; he's also one of the few post-Coltrane tenor men to establish an influential style of his own. His trademarks include an unflappable swing, which undergirds rhythmic detours audacious and subtle; a burred, woody tone that contrasts with both Coltrane's granite power and the metallic ping of the 80s; the fluttery expressionism of his upper register; and his involuted improvisations, which often seem to wander but end up cutting like a scalpel. Eight years younger, Watts uses similar elements to strikingly different effect. While his tone has the same malleability, he uses it in a more extroverted way--he wails where Henderson prefers to wonder--and he too applies an almost feminine grace to the upper register. Listening to the contours of Watts's improvisations, you can hear how he has combined Henderson's more nomadic impulses with the directness of pop music. Watts catches plenty of flack for his chameleonism (the guy has recorded prominent solos with both Neil Diamond and Frank Zappa), and his improvising--especially when constrained by the urge toward melancholia that marks Quartet West--never attains the lovely ambiguities or brainy challenges you get from Henderson. But in the course of winning two Grammy awards in the 80s, for his pop and R & B recordings, Watts probably helped pave the way for the general-audience accolades (and three Grammy awards) that Henderson has enjoyed in the 90s. Both perform as part of the Verve Jazz Festival, a road show featuring some of the best jazz label's best-sellers. Rounding out the bill are the Kansas City All-Stars, the little big band of young musicians who appeared in Robert Altman's here-today-gone-today film Kansas City. Friday, 8 PM, Center for the Performing Arts at Governors State University, Stuenkel Rd. and Governor's Hwy., University Park; 708-235-2222. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joe Henderson photo by Jimmy Katz/ Quartet West photo by Carole Friedman.

Add a comment