Throughout the 1960s, Joe Henderson was the busiest tenor saxophonist at Blue Note, releasing several outstanding albums as a leader and appearing often as a highly-regarded sideman with most of the label's talented and innovative stable of jazz artists. ( Henderson's ubiquity makes his box set The Blue Note Years probably the best available overview of the label's glory days, offering not just a sampling of his solo efforts, but takes from sessions led by Kenny Dorham, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Andrew Hill, Grant Green, and McCoy Tyner, among others.) An accomplished composer and powerful improviser, Henderson enjoyed moderate success and an excellent reputation among jazz fans for years, but did not emerge as a jazz superstar until the 1990s, when his albums on Verve paying tribute to Billy Strayhorn and Miles Davis achieved enormous critical and popular acclaim.
The Joe Henderson Big Band, recorded during two sessions in 1992 and 1996, continues his successful formula of reworking older tunes by a well-known artist, only this time the artist in question is Henderson himself. The seven originals and two standards on the album are all new versions of tunes previously recorded by Henderson, though none ever in a big band setting. His own compositions are challenging and harmonically complex and would not translate well into the big band format without first-rate musicians and arrangers. Fortunately, Henderson has both of these at his disposal. Classic tunes from the Blue Note years such as "Inner Urge," "Black Narcissus," and "Isotope" are given fresh and exciting arrangements by Henderson, Slide Hampton, Bob Belden, and Michael Philip Mossman. Featured soloists, besides Henderson's dynamic tenor, include Freddie Hubbard, Nicholas Payton, and Chick Corea.
Rarely heard with a big band, Corea's playing here is a special revelation. In addition to his expectedly remarkable melodic improvising, Corea displays an unexpected rhythmic ferocity as both a soloist and accompanist with the big band. Henderson's tenor playing is equally virtuosic. He brings out all the romance and passion in ballads like Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," and plays fast and furious on up-tempo numbers like his own "A Shade of Jade," on which he trades solos with Freddie Hubbard, no slouch when it comes to high-energy, aggressive playing. More than two dozen musicians appear on the album, with prominent roles being taken by such top-flight performers as Jon Faddis, Christian McBride, Lew Soloff, Al Foster, Lewis Nash, and Joe Chambers. One only wishes that market trends and economic realities made it possible for a band like this to tour and record together regularly. This is as good as progressive, modern big band music gets.