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."

The Original Mingus Dynasty

This was after Handy had been in one of the early incarnations of The Mingus Dynasty alongside one of America's most acknowledged flute masters, James Newton, in addition to such veteran Mingus luminaries as Sir Roland Hanna, Dannie Richmond, and Jimmy Knepper. Handy hadn't known Newton back in California, their home State. "The minute I met him I just felt a kindred spirit in him. He was like the big brother I never had; such an amazing flautist. He definitely inspired me."

The group's recording with Handy on tenor and Newton on flute, Mingus' Sound of Love (Soul Note, 1987) was made in Milan for the Soul Note label. One highpoint is "Celia," where Handy, preceded by Hanna and followed by Newton, takes a fine tenor chorus full of unexpected trills and deep lyricism. "Yeah, that record came about when Giovanni Bonandrini of Soul Note was running Umbria. I remember being in Italy for a good amount of time then. We played Umbria, Ferrara, and other festivals. Then we went to play the North Sea Festival on an infamous wind-whipped tour in which we all caught pneumonia, basically, because it was some promoter's desire to save a buck and put us on a train from Italy to the North Sea. Myself, James Newton, and Sue Mingus were in a car with this guy who would not stop smoking cigars. All night long the window was cracked and it was like 20 degrees outside. So we all got sick and it kind of snowballed and the whole band got sick from us. It wasn't funny then, but we used to laugh about it later."

Handy was back, on tenor and flute, for the Mingus Dynasty recording Next Generation Performs Charles Mingus Brand New Compositions by Mingus Dynasty (Columbia, 1991), this time with tenor legend George Adams on board. Though three tenor saxophonists participate on the date, (Alex Foster is the third), Handy is the only soloist for the opening "Sketch Four," which he takes on tenor. On the fine ballad "Portrait," he is the flute soloist. And on "Opus Four," it's the two tenors of Handy and George Adams, while "Opus Three" gives space to all three tenor saxophonists.

George Adams

George Adams comes in for special mention when the subject of the early Mingus Dynasty comes up.

"George Adams was in the cleanup position in that band. The front line was myself, George, and Jack Walrath for at least two or two and a half years. And George was the original tenor player in The Mingus Big Band when that started in 1991."

In the first incarnation of The Mingus Big Band, Adams held the reed section's "blues chair," while Handy played in the lead chair, "where it was probably more important to have the eyes," he says. "I was the guy who could read all the notes. But George got lots of solo space, and George is always going to play George."

Handy claims that he must have absorbed the equivalent of 15 gigabytes of information from George Adams. "He was an amazing, amazing, amazing performer."

Listening closely enough, Handy can be heard playing a George Adams line from time to time.

Handy makes an important point about how this music is sometimes handed down. "That's the beautiful thing about it. While you live, while you're here on this planet, there are certain people around you who, once they're gone, you carry bits and pieces of them into the next generation. It's like the oral tradition, and George Adams would be the equivalent of the modern day Griot in the tradition that was passed on from all the way back to Coleman Hawkins. It isn't done because you listen to a record and transcribe something. It's done because there was a guy sitting next to you who was playing some shit and you got burned from the heat and the heat left a mark on you. That's the stuff that doesn't wash off."

Roy Haynes

The first group Handy worked with steady when he came east to New York was The Roy Haynes Quartet. "I think I kind of started out pretty much at the top," Handy comments.

It wasn't until '92 that Handy recorded When It's Haynes It Roars (Dreyfus, 1992) with the Roy Haynes Quartet. That date was followed up by Haynes' Homecoming (Dreyfus, 1994). Handy played mostly tenor and soprano with Haynes' band.

Handy learned a crucial lesson from Haynes, one which he seems to have kept in mind over the years: always remember who you're playing for. No matter how great you are, you can't get so self-absorbed that you forget you're playing for an audience. "Roy used to tell me that when he went out with Coltrane, sometimes at the end of the night, the help would be packing up and 'Trane would still be playing. 'Trane would close his eyes and be playing solos for 15 or 20 minutes, and the song would go on for a half an hour. Roy remembered playing somewhere in Chicago and the audience had already left. They were putting the chairs on the tables and cleaning up the place, and 'Trane was still playing. His eyes were closed and he was sweating and Roy was hittin' and they were all hittin,' and everybody else had already gone home."

Haynes taught Handy that you have to learn how to keep the listener's attention. This is surely one reason Haynes has been a successful leader for so long, and, as an octogenarian, is still leading his own groups, playing contemporary music with players less than half his age. Handy has said elsewhere in All About Jazz that Haynes is "like a cat in the jungle. He judges very carefully that moment when he can capture an audience, then, at just the right time, he pounces."

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