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Craig Handy: The Busiest Man In Jazz


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Ballad Playing

"The reason I play saxophone," Handy explains, "is because when I was young, I heard Dexter Gordon playing 'Body and Soul' on the radio one day. Man that hit me. His sound just went right into my chest, and I was like 'Woh, what is this?' It warmed me, and I knew that's what I wanted to do." In tribute, Handy dedicated the ballad performance ''You're Blasé," on Split-Second Timing to Gordon.

Betty Carter confirmed to Handy that he had a gift for ballads. When he was playing with her in the '90s, "she told me I can fire it up when I want to, but that I also have the tone and sensibility to play pretty." Handy is on Carter's excellent Droppin' Things (Verve, 1990), with Freddie Hubbard, and its follow-up It's Not About The Melody (Verve, 1992).

Ballads, Handy says, come easily to him. "From the moment my parents gave me a saxophone, I was practicing scales and playing constantly, running up and down the horn. I was around 14 years old, and at one point my father came in to me and he said 'Man, what about a ballad? Can you slow down and play pretty, and say something that's not just running up and down the horn?' I looked at him and thought to myself 'Yeah, that's easy.' This is the hard stuff I'm practicing. I don't think he understood it. I know I didn't understand it. Now I do.

"To play slow and in a languid, lush kind of style, for me that's like rolling out of bed in the morning. That's where I live. The hard part is the actual thought process of trying to connect chord changes and play a melody through chord changes and play fast; I find that more difficult. To play a simple melody, that's like 'OK, I can do that.' I love thematic development, and I think that if I had never been exposed to John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, I might just be like a balladeer or something."

Reflections on Change and Flow

Handy's next two dates under his own name—Reflections in Change (Sirocco Music, 1999) and Flow (Sirocco Music, 2000)—reveal a growing maturity, depth, and confidence. On the earlier CD, Handy is fully in charge of an excellent quartet with pianist Geri Allen, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Ali Jackson. Handy and Jackson each contribute four originals, in addition to Mingus' "Eclipse." Most arresting may be "Adona's Song: Prelude" and "Adona's Song"—reflective, almost classical pieces. They are arranged for a larger ensemble by Sy Johnson, who had worked as an arranger with Mingus, and had also been doing arrangements for The Mingus Big Band. Exemplary orchestrations, they become lessons in how not to interfere with the beauty of the original composition. Leading up to these timeless performances, the bulk of Reflections In Change showcases Handy's capacious blowing, and he sounds relaxed, unfettered and elated.

Flow is, perhaps, an even more felicitous and fully realized date, with Handy composing the majority of the eight tunes, with one contribution from Ali Jackson, one Hancock/Stevie Wonder piece ("Chan's Song") and a notable treatment of an old standard associated with Sonny Rollins, "Just One Of Those Things." On the latter, Handy provides such an eye-opening, clever introduction that it's curious why he didn't do a "KoKo" and simply state the introduction, jettison the tune, and head right into the improvisations.

As these releases reveal, Handy started off the millennium with a bang.

More Mingus Big Band

The Mingus Big Band remains an ongoing project, with Handy returning to the fold for its two most recent recordings. On I Am Three (Sunnyside, 2004), his flute is featured on "Free Cell Block F.," while on Live in Tokyo (Sunnyside, 2006), his alto dominates on "Celia" and reprises his flute on the live version of "Free Cell Block F." His treatment of "Celia" harkens back to his 1987 Mingus Dynasty performance where he took the tune on tenor. He still has that lyrical sensibility, only more so, his alto exuding all the slinky, noir sound he is capable of bringing to ballads. The Mingus Big Band still performs every Monday night, now at New York's Jazz Standard. In the past year or so, Handy relinquished musical directorship to bassist Boris Kozlov. "Boris has been leading the band now," Handy says. "I haven't been involved as much lately. I've been freelancing and doing other projects. Boris' knowledge of the music from the vantage point of the bass is great. He came along at a really perfect time and stepped up to the mike, literally, and has taken a lot of control. He's doing a fantastic job leading The Mingus Big Band, and he's been coming up with nice arrangements."

New Jazz Composers Octet

In the past decade, Handy has been an important element in many of trumpeter/arranger David Weiss' projects—on Weiss' own recordings and in recordings under the name of The New Jazz Composers Octet. The earliest was the Freddie Hubbard release New Colors (Hip Bop 2000), which Weiss produced and arranged with Hubbard. Hubbard was near the end, and his playing was spectral at that point, but it's a worthwhile record for the kickass arrangements of great Hubbard tunes, and the exuberance of the band including Handy, pianist Xavier Davis and alto saxophonist Myron Walden. Their high level soloing is more than enough compensation for the weakened Hubbard performances.

From the same period comes Weiss' Breathing Room (Fresh Sound, 2001). Here Handy plays alto saxophone foil to Marcus Strickland's tenor. "I replaced Walden's alto in that date," he says. Pianist Xavier Davis delivers another exceptional performance, swinging as much as he is lyrical. Back at North Texas States University, in the eighties, Weiss had formed a band with fellow-student Handy which focused on playing Wayne Shorter tunes. Breathing Room features Shorter's "Armageddon," and "Those Who sit And Wait."

One of the highpoints of the next New Jazz Composers Octet's Walkin' The Line (Fresh Sound, 2002) is another in Handy's bag of significant compositions: "Abdullah's Demeanor"—dedicated to Abdullah Ibrahim, a past employer—features a heartfelt, reflective tenor solo that builds to a peak of intensity and then calmly eases back into the head. Chick Corea's "Inner Space" contains two fine sax solos, one by Handy on alto, preceded by Jimmy Greene on tenor.


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