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Eddie Henderson At Magy's Farm

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Eddie Henderson
Magy's Farm
Dromara, N. Ireland
December 2, 2023

Ireland is not short of venerable music venues, any one of which should have been proud to host trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Think Dublin's National Concert Hall or Vicar Street, Galway's Róisín Dubh, The Everyman in Cork, The MAC or The Black Box in Belfast. After all, it is not every day that one of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi sidemen, a musician who has cut it with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Benny Golson, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner and Gerald Wilson comes to town.

But Ireland is a strange country. As it happened, the venue for Eddie Henderson's only Irish date was a former pigsty in the rolling hills of County Down.

To be fair, Magys Farm is a beautifully repurposed former pigsty, one with seating for around forty—people—and excellent acoustics. And not a hint of straw. It is a labor of love for owners Maggie Doyle and Linley Hamilton, who have hosted over fifty gigs here, mostly jazz, since 2020. But Eddie Henderson? They must be pinching themselves.

Henderson has recorded consistently over the course of a fifty-plus-year career. Bar a period in the 1970s and 1980s, when he practiced as a qualified psychiatrist, he has released an album every couple of years or so. His twenty-seventh as leader, the aptly named Witness To History (Smoke Session Records, 2023), found the octogenarian in terrific form, accompanied by heavy hitters Lenny White, Donald Harrison, George Cables and Gerald Cannon.

It would have been reasonable to expect the album to feature prominently on this gig, but Henderson, who has always paddled his own canoe, had other ideas. Fronting a European quartet of drummer Stephen Keogh, bassist Arnie Somogyi and pianist Matyas Gayer, Henderson regaled the audience with a set of jazz standards.

Henderson's story is worth telling, but suffice it to say, his big break came in 1970 when a week-long gig with Herbie Hancock blossomed into a three-year chapter with the pianist's iconic Mwandishi sextet. 'That changed my life,' Henderson told All About Jazz in 2003.

Knowing what side his bread was buttered on, Henderson led off with a gently swinging rendition of Hancock's "Toys," from Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968). There were elegant solos from Matyas on upright piano and Somogy, but these were eclipsed by a beautifully weighted offering by the leader that exuded warmth and lyricism. The head-solo-solo-solo-head format of this opener established the unwavering template for the rest of the set.

The first of just two songs aired from Witness to History was a pop song of the old school—"Sweet and Lovely," a number one hit in 1931, and played here as a waltz. Henderson once again impressed, sounding as good as he ever has, but the pick of the solos this time came from Somogy. Job done, the bassist then locked onto an Ahmad Jamal-esque ostinato while Irish-born Keogh worked up some steam on his kit.

As a young man, Henderson studied with both Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, though it was the former whose influence colored Henderson's playing most overtly, both on swing numbers and a gorgeous reading of the ballad "You Know I Care." On the latter, the leader's plaintive soloing was lent sympathetic support by Gayer, whose silky touch and blues-tinged voicings contrasted with Henderson's more robust delivery.

With trumpet muted on a sprightly version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein showtune "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" it was a different story, Henderson instead channeling the wistful spirit of Miles Davis—another guiding light.

The quartet's faithful, hard-bop approach to Lee Morgan's "Totem Pole" saw Keogh switch between sticks and brushes as Henderson and Gayer's burn gave way to Somogy's cooler impressionism. The ever-green "Cantaloupe Island" saw fellow trumpeter Linley Hamilton harmonize the iconic melody with Henderson, the two then trading searching solos ahead of turns by piano and bass.

Woody Shaw was another influence on Henderson, and it was to his hard-bop classic "The Moontrane" that Henderson turned next. Another round of solos ensued, with Keogh released from his pristine timekeeping to really shake and rattle skin and metal.

The quartet bowed out with Kenny Barron's "Phantoms," a staple of Henderson's live shows since first committing it to vinyl in 1989. With Henderson once again on mute, Keogh juggling mallet and brush, and piano and bass treading softly, this distinctive ballad concluded the evening's music in beautifully understated manner.

Compared to some of his peers, Henderson has flown a little under the radar all these years. However, he may be enjoying a late-career renaissance and overdue recognition as 2024 sees the PBS premiere of the documentary Dr. Eddie Henderson: Uncommon Genius.

Viewers can expect insights into the Cotton Club—Henderson's mother was one of the original dancers there—and the family connection to Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Likely too, insight into the Herbie Hancock years, Henderson's career in psychiatry and the little-known fact that, overcoming extreme racial prejudice, he was the first African American to compete for the National Figure Skating championship. Oh, and Henderson's successful foray into disco. Witness to history indeed.

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