First Recordings as a Leader
After playing and recording with Haynes, The Mingus Big Band and Dynasty, and Betty Carter among others, Handy released the first CD under his own name: Split-Second Timing (Arabesque, 1992). With bassist Ray Drummond, drummer Ralph Peterson, pianist Edward Simon, and guest trombonist Robin Eubanks, 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 '80swhere, 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 triolong 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, Handy's band mate from The Mingus Big Band, sits in on piano for a few numbers. Handy covers Joe Henderson'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.
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 eventfuland 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-produced Acoustic Masters II, (Atlantic, 1994); a dream band with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianbist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lenny White, on drums, plus trumpeter/percussionist Jerry Gonzalez 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 firstAcoustic Masters Iwas a 1994 date featuring saxophonist Charles Lloyd, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Buster Williams 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 that, as a two-tenor group with Ravi Coltrane, 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 StarsHandy once again with Ron Carter and Lenny White, plus guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist Cedar Walton, and trumpeter Tim Hagansrecorded 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 and, once more, Lenny White. They recorded two CDs: The Chartbusters, Vol. I (1995), on vibraphonist Mike Mainieri's NYC Records label, consisted of jazz hits from the Blue Note label including Horace Silver's "Tokyo Blues," Mobley's "No Room For Squares," and Kenny Dorham's "Una Mas." The follow-up, Mating Call (Prestige, 1995), contained popular jazz standards associated with the Prestige label, like Sonny Rollins' "Mambo Bounce," Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Kirk's Work," plus a Handy-penned tribute to Gene Ammons, "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, 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 and drummer Billy Hart. 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 timeas 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.