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  Tenor Madness  
  by Dustin Garlitz  
     
 

         January 2005:

       The classic Blue Note recordings of the 1950’s and 1960’s feature five consistently brilliant tenor saxophonists who recorded a plethora of albums for the label.   Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson and Hank Mobley are the powerful 5 musicians I am referring to.  Coltrane and Sonny Rollins are left out because they belong in a different, incredible category; Sam Rivers, Ike Quebec, Stanley Turrentine and Yusef Lateef are not addressed because they weren’t as prolific as the power elite of Shorter, Gordon, Mobley, Henderson and Griffin.   Dex was called “long and tall” and Johnny was referred to as “the little giant”. Mobley died in 1980’s, Dex in the early 1990’s and we just recently lost Henderson in 2001. “The little giant” lives and performs in France nowadays, while Wayne leads an all-star group of musicians in New York (check out Michele Mercer’s biography of Shorter called Footprints- it has an amazing intro my Carlos Santana).

       Henderson’s Inner Urge is one of the most played songs by jazzmen today (Ravi Coltrane is one of the many musicians who chose to include it on one of his albums, and he steams through it with Steve Coleman); yet his La Mesha (from Page One, with Kenny Dorham) is most likely his most memorable- although it is rivaled, in terms of popularity, by Blue Bossa. Griffin played with Monk during a good part of the fifties (filling in for Coltrane some of the time) and you can really hear him blowing hard on their recording of In Walked Bud.  I have a French bootleg of Johnny hitting things even harder with Straight No Chaser (yet it has Bud Powell on piano rather than Monk).  Blowin’ Session was his biggest success on Blue Note.  Coltrane is featured on this album just because Johnny and Alfred Lion ran into him in midtown before they took off to the New Jersey session (they asked him to sit in, and he agreed). 

       When Dexter Gordon left the country in the late 1950’s, Blue Note kept him as a house artist.  He recorded Dexter Calling in England and Our Man In Paris in France (which features Bud Powell at his best).  Yet it is Mobley that recorded the most albums for Blue Note Records.  Choose which one you want to listen to accordingly (a wise choice for funk is a Caddy for Daddy, yet try Soul Station for a swinging affair). The Turnaround is one of the best examples of stylish cover art by Reid Miles.   All of these tenor players’ work on Blue Note inspired the younger players of today like Seamus Blake, Chris Potter and Mark Turner.

      The closest thing we have to Blue Note’s extensive inventory of ready-and-able tenor players is found on Amsterdam’s ‘Criss Cross’ record label.  Though Criss Cross- as Mike Karn once told me when referring to Eric Alexander’s recent leap to Milestone- is a good transitional label to be on, but tenor players’ can’t depend on it to pay the bills like they could at Blue Note in the 1950’s and 1960’s (he was trying to explain to me during a sax lesson that it takes a 100,000 dollars yearly salary to live comfortably in Manhattan today, which is a rare occurrence for a modern jazzman not signed to a major record label). 

    There sure are a good deal of tenor players inspired by the power elite of classic Blue Note men, yet the listener should be ready to only hear diminished returns in the contemporary work of these artists.  It is unfortunate that there aren’t more content rich labels out there today, yet at least there are still some talented people designing cover art for these weak projects.