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Eddie Henderson: Healing with Music

R.J. DeLuke By

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This is what heals me. Playing music. It's what makes me well. How can I help somebody else if I'm not well?
Jazz trumpeter extraordinaire Eddie Henderson always had talent. After all, his first informal lesson on the instrument at the age of 9 was from Louis Armstrong. But his studies went well beyond that. As a teenager he was learning legitimate trumpet at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and performing with the San Francisco Conservatory Symphony Orchestra. Proper technique is always the cornerstone of such an undertaking. And so it was with a bit of brashness, and a dash of innocent ignorance, that he spoke to a friend of his parents sometime in 1957 as the two drove down a city street.

Young Eddie didn't know the man well, but had just accompanied him to a gig in San Francisco. "You don't play correct," the teenager told the driver, who promptly screeched the car to a halt.

"What the fuck are you playing?" intoned the man in a gravely voice. "I play trumpet," the boy responded.

"Yeah. I'll BET you play trumpet," said Miles Dewey Davis III as he threw the car back in gear and drove on.

"Actually, I really didn't know who he was," says Henderson in early June, recalling the incident. The first band he heard Davis perform with included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly and Philly Joe Jones. Not unlike watching the Yankees with Mantle, Maris, Berra and Whitey Ford prior to paying attention to the sports pages.

As a family friend, Davis became more familiar to Henderson. In fact, Miles has been a major musical influence on the 62-year-old throughout his life. That culminated in May of 2002 with the recording of So What , a tribute to Davis that features songs associated with the legend. It was released earlier this year. The group -Bob Berg on sax, Dave Kikoski on piano, Ed Howard on bass and either Billy Hart or Victor Lewis on drums, does a scintillating job playing the music.

"Miles is so very special to me because when I was in high school he stayed in my parents' house when he came through town about 1957, '58 and '59 in San Francisco. I was going to the conservatory then studying classical music. I saw him do all these songs live when I was much younger. So when I was asked to do a tribute to him, playing his music, I was thrilled to death and honored. And with such a prestigious company like Sony and Columbia, I said, 'This is going to be fun.'"

The music sparkles. The renditions of "All Blues," "So What," "Footprints," "Prince of Darkness" "Old Folks" and more retain a fresh quality, and Henderson's trumpet -both muted and open —eerily harkens the spirit of Miles, while retaining Henderson's fingerprints as well. His horn burns at times and at others invokes the introspective and mellow side that made Miles so appealing. He deliberately tried to portray Davis, but through his own soul. "I tried to emulate the character of him, through his music, even though it was me. I tried to put myself there. Since it's a tribute to Miles Davis, and he was so important to me, I really wanted to show that I was influenced, not just playing the tunes that he played without any thought of going inside the music and make it come alive as a presentation or dedication to him."

Like Miles' recording style through much of his earlier career, this session was very much "live." The sound and feeling the group achieved is remarkable.

"There was no rehearsal and no music," says Henderson. "Can you imagine that? We just came to the studio. They were professionals. But I did make one statement: 'Whatever you do, don't do it like you've heard it so many times on record.' Like the line to "All Blues," the bass line to "So What" or the bass in "Some Day My Prince Will Come." I said 'Whatever you do, do anything but that, so it'll be a surprise when the melody comes in.'"

"Out of the nine tunes, seven were the first take. The one and only take. The other two, there were two takes, but we used the first take. It was very organic. I'm really thrilled to death it happened like that," he says. "I'm very proud of that product. Everybody on the record made it sound like that. All the elements were there. It was so natural. You could really just play music and not read music."

He added, "If I did it just like the original records, why would anybody buy this commodity? Just sit home and listen to the old records."

But old, it is not. The usually familiar opening to "All Blues" is hidden, and each artist tells a different story over its modal structure. Berg's tone is rough and muscular, Henderson's deft and haunting. His ideas are charismatic and always enhance both the song and the mood. Throughout, the band is together and the renditions of these classic songs are executed beautifully, in both musical makeup and their emotive quality.

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