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Interviews

Craig Handy: The Busiest Man In Jazz

By Published: March 22, 2010

First Recordings as a Leader



After playing and recording with Haynes, The Mingus Big Band and Dynasty, and Betty Carter

Betty Carter
Betty Carter
1930 - 1998
vocalist
among others, Handy released the first CD under his own name: Split-Second Timing (Arabesque, 1992). With bassist Ray Drummond
Ray Drummond
Ray Drummond
b.1946
bass
, drummer Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson
b.1962
drums
, pianist Edward Simon
Edward Simon
Edward Simon
b.1969
piano
, and guest trombonist Robin Eubanks
Robin Eubanks
Robin Eubanks
b.1955
trombone
, it is one of those debuts that causes jazz fans to salivate. Here was a charging, explosive, up to the minute group that didn't seem content to simply rehash the past. Bringing forward the mainstream with a tough, two-feet on the ground approach, Split-Second Timing served in part as an antidote to much of the conventionalism of the '80s—where, for some, it seemed as if musicians were stuck in a time warp with too much rehashing of the Miles Davis/Wayne Shorter band of the '60s. "The Immediacy Of Hardcore," a trio piece, tackles the demanding confines of the tenor trio—long before it became fashionable. Now, every self-respecting saxophonist has to prove him/herself in the bare-bones setting. In contrast, Handy meanders through a lovely exploration of the original "Tori" on alto.



Split-Second Timing was followed up the next year by another forward-looking set of music. Taken all on tenor, Introducing Three For All + One (Arabesque, 1993) was, as the title indicates, a trio with bassist Charles Fambrough}} and drummer Ralph Peterson. Pianist David Kikoski

David Kikoski
David Kikoski
b.1961
piano
, Handy's band mate from The Mingus Big Band, sits in on piano for a few numbers. Handy covers Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson
1937 - 2001
sax, tenor
's "Isotope" as another trio rave up. And Peterson's "E Racer X," a dedication to George Adams, is fast and complex enough to require seat belts.



Both these Arabesque dates stand out as harder and more explorative than much of jazz of the period, and they still sound as fresh now as when they were first recorded.



Other Sessions



1993 was a momentous year in jazz in that it saw the release of the first Mingus Big Band recording, Nostalgia In Times Square (Dreyfus, 1993). This was new and eventful—and a recording by the band New York music cognoscenti had been talking about. The group had been playing Monday nights at the Time Café in the Village. Handy has a number of features on "Open Letter To Duke," and "Ecclusiastics." His tenor solo on "Weird Nightmare," is especially noteworthy in bringing out the tune's mystery.



Another highpoint of this period is the Lenny White

Lenny White
Lenny White
b.1949
drums
-produced Acoustic Masters II, (Atlantic, 1994); a dream band with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson
Bobby Hutcherson
Bobby Hutcherson
b.1941
vibraphone
, pianbist Mulgrew Miller
Mulgrew Miller
Mulgrew Miller
1955 - 2013
piano
, bassist Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
and drummer Lenny White, on drums, plus trumpeter/percussionist Jerry Gonzalez
Jerry Gonzalez
Jerry Gonzalez
b.1949
trumpet
on a few tracks.

Created by such a group of warmly compatible musicians, this often overlooked and largely modal date holds up beautifully. In what amounts to an all-star session, the CD features plenty of prime Handy, and two of his best tunes: "Wayne's World" and "Concrete Blues." Handy sounds jubilant and confident in such company. Hutcherson's "8/4 Beat" is a particularly intriguing workout, as is Miller's unforgettable "Second Thoughts." Acoustic Masters II came as the second in a series of recordings White produced for the label. The first—Acoustic Masters I—was a 1994 date featuring saxophonist Charles Lloyd

Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
b.1938
saxophone
, pianist Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
1934 - 2013
piano
, bassist Buster Williams
Buster Williams
Buster Williams
b.1942
bass
and White, and has been even more difficult to find over the years than Acoustic Masters II. There were hopes that more would be heard from this band with Hutcherson, but the release received little attention and quietly slipped into that realm where a session is more talked about than actually heard.

Handy was always on call and in demand during this period, and 1995 turned out to be another banner year due to the release of numerous recordings on which he played a seminal part. The Mingus Big Band followed up with its second CD, Gunslinging Birds (Dreyfus, 1995), which turned more heads, and definitively put the band on the map and in the polls as one of the top big bands in the country. There was Grand Central, a tribute to the music of Hank Mobley

Hank Mobley
Hank Mobley
1930 - 1986
sax, tenor
that, as a two-tenor group with Ravi Coltrane
Ravi Coltrane
Ravi Coltrane
b.1965
sax, tenor
, recorded Tenor Conclave (Evidence, 1995). For Handy, Mobley is an interesting figure, another of the Blue Note tenor masters to whom he has paid particular attention. Like Mobley, Handy calculates, but his soloing does not come off as calculated. His passion is clear, and there is always melodic content, in addition to an often laid-back reserve, or cool, to his playing. Arguably, the most effective tune on the date is Handy's personal tribute to Mobley, "Hanksville."

In the same year, Essence All Stars—Handy once again with Ron Carter and Lenny White, plus guitarist Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
b.1931
guitar
, pianist Cedar Walton, and trumpeter Tim Hagans
Tim Hagans
Tim Hagans
b.1954
trumpet
—recorded Primal Blue (Hip Bop, 1995). Another Lenny White-produced date, the regard in which Handy is held by his elders can be sensed. Carter's "For Toddler's Only" lets Handy loose, a trio feature backed by the bassist and drummer. White's "Uno Dos Adios," a marvelously infectious 6/8 arrangement, incorporates tasty horn riffs behind the soloists, and features Handy stretching out on tenor. Handy's lovely single chorus on Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" is the essence of one aspect of what he does best. Opening up in one of the tenor's higher registers, in the 'Trane/Wayne realm, he walks a tightrope of poise with his carefully-paced, strategically-balanced lines.



1995 also saw the formation of The Chartbusters, yet another all-star band featuring Handy with Dr. Lonnie Smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
b.1942
organ, Hammond B3
and, once more, Lenny White. They recorded two CDs: The Chartbusters, Vol. I (1995), on vibraphonist Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
b.1938
vibraphone
's NYC Records label, consisted of jazz hits from the Blue Note label including Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
b.1928
piano
's "Tokyo Blues," Mobley's "No Room For Squares," and Kenny Dorham
Kenny Dorham
Kenny Dorham
1924 - 1972
trumpet
's "Una Mas." The follow-up, Mating Call (Prestige, 1995), contained popular jazz standards associated with the Prestige label, like Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
' "Mambo Bounce," Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
1936 - 1977
reeds
's "Kirk's Work," plus a Handy-penned tribute to Gene Ammons
Gene Ammons
Gene Ammons
1925 - 1974
sax, tenor
, "Juggsville."



Two Ray Drummond-led dates from the '90s also contain exceptional Handy: Excursion (Arabesque, 1993), and 1, 2, 3, 4 (Arabesque, 1999). On the former, Handy shares the tenor duties with Joe Lovano

Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
b.1952
saxophone
, and their contrast in styles is highly instructive, with Handy having the harder edge, tighter embouchure, and more direct lines. 1, 2, 3, 4, is a straight quartet date with pianist Stephen Scott
Stephen Scott
Stephen Scott
b.1850
piano
and drummer Billy Hart
Billy Hart
Billy Hart
b.1940
drums
. Perhaps the highpoint of this date is the treatment of "Goin' Home," in which an infectious Handy gets extreme, but always manages to rein himself in for the save. He takes the first solo on tenor, and then, after the piano solo, he comes back in for even more time—as if he can't be contained and hadn't gotten it all in during his first solo. It's a joyous romp on a somewhat hoary tune. With two Wayne Shorter tunes—"Ana Maria" and "Nefertitti"—plus Ellington's "Prelude to A Kiss," Carter's "Little Waltz" and Coltrane's "Mr. P. C.," the date contains a tasty set of song choices.



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