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Craig Handy: The Busiest Man In Jazz


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Saxophonist Craig Handy is a musician's musician. Those "in the know" know about him, which is why he's been a first call player in New York for over two decades. He is a careful, thoughtful improviser—expansive and precise. His solos build on a rich knowledge of the tradition at the same time as they often set out for the edge, walk it, but never fall off. While he derives portions of his vocabulary from the'Trane/Shorter axis, there is a shrewd depth and broadness to his playing.

In addition to John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, there are touches of Frank Wess, Dexter Gordon, George Adams, Gene Ammons, even Ben Webster in Handy's playing. Rooted in unmistakable originality, Handy's distinctive style has his personality written all over it. And whether it is in New York, Japan, or Europe, Handy is always working—with the Mingus Big Band, Conrad Herwig's Latin Side All Stars, or David Weiss's various projects like The Cookers or The New Jazz Composers Octet. With a strong, full body of work already behind him, this is one busy musician.

An extremely satisfying player, Handy exhilarates in taking the constant chances required by a jazz solo, and he conveys the glee of that challenge. A contemporary mainstream hard-bopper, capable of screaming climaxes when required, he reveals a solid familiarity with both the inside and outside. His tone is big and disciplined, tender on ballads, bluesy, and his own—and he can testify. He's a master at starting off solos with an arresting, original ploy to garner some attention. The tenor solo on "Donkey Dust," on pianist Kirk Lightsey's Lightsey To Gladden (Criss Cross, 2008), is a good example. He begins off high—almost skronky—but soon brings it down and sets into an easy groove. On Ray Drummond's 1,2,3,4 (Arabesque, 1999), Handy's workout on "Going Home" reveals how far he can take things, with more than a nod to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, without veering off into the meaningless. Then there's the lovely pacing and varied, considered phrasings of his tenor solo on the Essence All-Stars' version of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments."

And, most importantly, Handy is always emotional, moving. His solos are touching, rarely made up of empty, predigested runs and scales. Rarely exercises in mere facility, Handy is always putting together carefully constructed, but spontaneous, musical statements, appropriate to the context—a maddeningly difficult thing to do, which has been done by only a select few musicians in the past century. Be skeptical when someone tries to convince you that jazz has turned into imitation, or become cold, postmodern, conceptual posturing. Listening to Handy demonstrates that the state of jazz is more than just healthy, it is exciting and vital; it continues to operate, as it always has, within the parameters of significance, using the same language, however extended, that it has always used: the language of the human heart and soul.

He's been in the movies, playing the part of Coleman Hawkins in Robert Altman's 1996 jazz film Kansas City. He's served as music contributor to The Cosby Show. He's been Musical Director for the Mingus Big on and off for a good part of the last twenty years. And he has been reedman of choice for countless recording dates by both contemporaries and elder statesmen. He's one of the few outstanding tenor saxophonists of his generation, but he is just as in demand as an alto saxophonist and flautist—a changing of musical hats difficult to pull off successfully. And while it is truly puzzling why he has only a handful of CDs under his own name, already, in his mid-forties, he's recorded more than most performers do in a lifetime.

Chapter Index

  1. Lightsey To Gladden
  2. The Original Mingus Dynasty
  3. George Adams
  4. Roy Haynes
  5. New York Early Days
  6. Mingus B ig Band
  7. Herbie Hancock Tour
  8. First Recordings as a Leader
  9. Other Sessions
  10. Ballad Playing
  11. Reflections on Change and Flow
  12. More Mingus Big Band
  13. New Jazz Composers Octet
  14. Dee Dee Bridgewater
  15. Conrad Herwig's Latin Side All Stars
  16. The Cookers
  17. Future Projects
  18. Saxophone Showroom

Lightsey To Gladden

Not long ago Handy had a pleasant surprise. Nearly two decades after it had been recorded, the Dutch Criss Cross label released Lightsey To Gladden, a CD Handy had been part of in 1990. On that date he plays three of the eight tunes on tenor and five on flute. "I was totally surprised when I heard that it came out after so long," Handy says, and then adds, "I played a lot of flute on that recording, and I didn't realize I could play the instrument that well in 1990. I was 27 or 28 then. I played more flute then than I do now."

The release has garnered accolades. Among the high level performances, one track in particular stands out. Lionel Hampton's balladic "Midnight Sun" features Handy on flute, accompanied by pianist Kirk Lightsey. The track is eight minutes long, all gorgeous flute with no piano solo. "When I listened to that I thought 'Man, what was the matter with me? I was with Kirk Lightsey, and I didn't even give him any solo space. And it was his record.'"

Such are the idiosyncrasies of the recording industry, that a gem like Lightsey To Gladden would have to wait nearly two decades to see the light of day. The CD, with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave also in the front line, sounds as if it had been made right now. At the time it was recorded, after featuring so much of his flute playing, you'd think Handy would have given even more emphasis to the wind instrument, but shortly thereafter he quit playing flute. "Yeah, at around that time, I got disgusted with my flute playing and I stopped playing the instrument for ten years. I didn't pick it up again until I was around 37."

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