Power to the People is a typical high-quality Joe Henderson affair. It’s a well-known truism that Joe Henderson was, for years, one of the most consistently underrated tenor saxophonists on the jazz scene. True, he was known and discussed, but never seemed to be placed in the company of greats like Coltrane and Rollins.
Similarly to Dexter Gordon (who he was greatly influenced by), Henderson was well-respected in jazz circles but didn’t have a mainstream breakthrough until much later in his career. In Henderson’s case, it was the 1992 recording Lush Life. However, there is ample recorded evidence of Henderson’s vitality throughout his long career, with distinct phases. From 1963-68, Henderson appeared on somewhere around thirty albums for Blue Note. While many of these were as a leader, he was a sideman on some heavy projects, including Horace Silver’s Song for My Father, Herbie Hancock’s Prisoner, and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch.
In 1970 Henderson signed with Orrin Keepnews’ fledgling Milestone label, where he became an equally prolific leader and sideman. His Milestone recordings rank among Joe Henderson’s best and most interesting work, with the newly reissued Power to the People of particular interest due to its stellar supporting cast: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and trumpeter Mike Lawrence on two tracks. With the exception of Carter’s “Opus One-Point-Five” and the standard “Lazy Afternoon,” all the compositions here are Henderson’s.
Power to the People leads off with “Black Narcissus,” one of Henderson’s best-loved compositions. In the album’s original liner notes Alan Heinman marvels: “Dig on ‘Black Narcissus,’ for instance, where Joe floats like a butterfly with a tone so airy he might in spots be blowing alto. That a man could participate in the moods of both ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Black Narcissus’ is not astonishing; that he can be wholly convincing in both worlds and others besides, is.”
Amazingly, Henderson eschews neither Coltrane nor Rollins (what tenor player could?), but he occupies a territory somewhere between the two, which is wholly his own. Similarly, his take on soul and rock-influenced jazz here is different than most of what was being labeled ‘fusion’ at the time. Even though the rhythm section is all-electric on this track, the interaction between the players is really no different from any post-bop jazz small group recording.
Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, both former members of Miles Davis’ second great quintet and veterans of Davis’ transition from straight jazz to electric rock/funk-oriented music provide a solid basis for Henderson and the largely unknown Lawrence (on two tracks), while drummer Jack DeJohnette (who also worked with Davis on the seminal Bitches Brew) is, as always, near-perfect.
For fans of modern jazz, Power to the People is something of an undiscovered classic, offering a fine performance that endures repeated listening from one of the music’s most creative and often under-recognized improvisers.