Album Spotlight; Henderson on a roll

Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, Joe Henderson is the toast of the jazz world.

His first Verve album, “Lush Life”– a thoughtful survey of the music of Billy Strayhorn — leaped to the top of Billboard’s jazz chart last year, fueled by an energetic promotional push from his new record company, Polygram.

Ecstatic press reviews followed, along with a trio of coveted Down Beat magazine poll victories (jazz artist, jazz album and tenor saxophonist of the year), a highly visible gig at the presidential inaugural balls, and another Verve album, “So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles),” due in the stores tomorrow. To many, the highly respected 55-year-old tenor sax veteran seems to be jazz’s “comeback kid.”

But why all of this sudden acclaim for Henderson? “That’s a difficult one for me to figure out,” he said from his home in San Francisco last week. “I don’t remember ever having gone anywhere. I’ve been out on the front line all this time.”

In one way, the perception is understandable since prior to “Lush Life,” Henderson had not recorded on his own in several years. “When I wasn’t recording ,” he explained, “I didn’t think I had anything new to offer and so I was content to play on other people’s projects.”

Henderson’s latest album is another songbook concept, built around often neglected tunes written by or associated with Miles Davis. Henderson played in Davis’ band briefly in 1967 during a turbulent time when the group’s lineups were constantly shifting.

Also on the album are guitarist John Scofield, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Al Foster, who have collective experience in Davis’ bands from the late-’60s to the mid-’80s. Unlike “Lush Life,” which reshuffled personnel from number to number, “So Near, So Far” uses all four players from start to finish.

The music often has a haunting ambience, summoned by the urbane harmonies of tunes like “Miles Ahead” and “Flamenco Sketches.””His presence was very much there,” Henderson said of the sessions. “If you didn’t watch yourself, you might find yourself making some comment to him!”

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