While the jazz publicity mills have been lobbing out a nonstop barrage of so-called young lions, players with suits crisply pressed but skills suspect, here's the real thing: a magnificent old lion in his first appearance as a big-band leader. After Sonny Rollins, Henderson, 59, is jazz's finest living tenor saxophonist. Listeners can approach his playing on any level according to their sophistication. His passionate way with a melody grabs novices, while his excursions into harmony's outer reaches pose plenty of challenges for the cognoscenti. There are wisdom and kindness in Henderson's playing; when he solos, a wry smile hovers between the notes.
Henderson cut three of these songs in 1992 with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and four years later invited pianist Chick Corea, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Lewis Nash and a dozen other first-rank pros to join him in recording six more. The CD roars out of the starting block with a full-tilt, flag-waving version of the old standard "Without a Song" and never looks back. "Inner Urge" starts with a supercharged 90-second fanfare, all glossy, brassy high drama; "Black Narcissus" rides a gentle, soothing wave; and in "Serenity" drums and bass drop out, giving way to a dazzlingly complex horn passage (courtesy of arranger Slide Hampton). It's intriguing to hear pieces associated with Henderson's illustrious small-group career—"Isotope," "Recordame"—taken apart and reassembled for a big band, their colors glistening, the horns tossing riffs back and forth like hotshot volleyballers.Joe Henderson Big Band is pure finger-snapping, soul-enriching pleasure. (Verve)