Bill McHenry

(Reprinted from old DTM; originally posted November 2007.)

I have known Bill for about fifteen years, during which time we released a record together, Live at Smalls, and I met my wife at his 2000/01 New Year’s party. Bill is a fantastic fount of jazz lore and knowledge, and many of us have learned a great deal just by hanging out with him and his record collection at his apartment on Adelphi Street. Once I complained to Bill about Sonny Rollins’s 1966 album East Broadway Run Down. He turned pale and said, “No way. That is one of my favorite records.” He put it on and accurately choreographed/mimed the entire record from start to finish. Afterwards, he said, “This is the kind of record I want to make someday. A hard-to-understand exploration (‘East Broadway Run Down’), a simple swinger (‘Blessing in Disguise’) and a definitive masterpiece-level rendition of a standard (‘We Kiss in a Shadow’).” Bill’s choreography/analysis was unforgettable; he taught me to love that Sonny disc, too.

Since I know Bill, I can’t really review his latest for DownBeat like the editor suggested. On the other hand, what other writer knows Bill’s music better than me? I have been in the audience for a dozen of his gigs over the years, and have played most of his tunes at informal sessions.

So… here is my biased and celebratory review of Bill McHenry and the McHenry/Ben Monder tradition. (Jim Macnie does an excellent, unbiased, and accurate 4-star feature review of Roses in the December DB.)

For ten years, Bill McHenry has been making quartet records with Ben Monder on guitar.

Rest Stop (recorded 1997) with Chris Higgins and Dan Rieser
Graphic (recorded 2000) with Reid Anderson and Gerald Cleaver
Featuring Paul Motian (recorded 2003) with Reid Anderson and Paul Motian
Roses (recorded 2006) with Reid Anderson and Paul Motian <!–



A significant part of the McHenry aesthetic is faux-naif, or the art of seeming simple when it isn’t. This aesthetic is declared with the initial music on his first record—in the introduction to “Afterthought,” where a duo of saxophone and bass play square descending half notes with pauses. It is nearly banal, but the intervals aren’t quite the expected ones.

Many McHenry compositions strive to make the simplest materials new again, and his work has gotten starker and starker over the years. It isn’t yet that stark on Rest Stop, but of course McHenry is only 24. There is a bossa nova (“The Sky That Flies Away”), a 12/8 piece (“Tuxedos”), and a blues. The least distinctive piece on Rest Stop is “Silly,” which is an imitation of Keith Jarrett imitating Ornette Coleman. (I thoroughly sympathize with this influence, since McHenry and I are both enamored of the Jarrett quartet with Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman. In fact, when I was 21, I made an album of imitation Jarrett/Ornette tunes with Dewey Redman himself. Overall, my first disc, the appropriately named School Work, is far more derivative than Rest Stop.)

Chris Higgins and Dan Rieser are solid, handling the different styles well. It’s really nice to hear Rieser in an improvising context, since he is better known as a superb pop drummer, like on Norah Jones’ mega-hit “Don’t Know Why.” However, the best moments on Rest Stop stem from the tenor sax/guitar relationship. Ben Monder is a guitar hero for the intellectual set, and in McHenry’s music his role is to be a diabolical element, using feedback, pedals, and unpredictable textures. A prime example is the curt overdriven guitar clomps that interrupt the smooth swing of “9/12” (McHenry’s birthday). The only free pieces on this disc are two improvised McHenry/Monder duos which still hold up well today. The concluding duo is particularly menacing.

Rest Stop is the only record considered here that shows some of McHenry’s “delicate threading through swinging changes” style that he has been doing for John McNeil’s “West Coast+” projects for the last couple of years. From here on out, McHenry will treat the quartets with Monder as his most absolutely abstract forum, and the music will get progressively more free.

Graphic is a major advance from Rest Stop; in fact, I consider it to be a jazz classic. It is vitally important for this music to have a bassist who brings personality and intensity to the stage, and Reid Anderson never does anything else. (I’m not allowed to write too much more about Reid’s playing on these records, since I play 150 gigs a year with him in The Bad Plus.) Drummer Gerald Cleaver is especially good on the rubato pieces, playing free music with forward motion and swing.

Two of the standout tracks on Graphic are “Blocks and Dots” and “Casi Te Amo.” “Blocks” begins with open-fifth harmony played by Monder. The rest of the band enters and states the tune around these “blocks.” Then there is a brief “dots” recitative before a stern trio improvisation. They find a beat, the bass drones on F#, and McHenry enters with a slow melody that drifts into silence. Then he waits, building tension, and finally starts unleashing scalding overblown lines.

“Casi Te Amo” is quintessential McHenry faux-naif, being just a few simple C Major melodies in thirds over a gentle rock beat. Beautiful. McHenry’s solo proves again that he can choose to be the slowest living saxophonist. He only plays about 75 notes,  and I think only about four of them are non-diatonic.

During the next couple years I saw McHenry, Monder, and Anderson play live with a few different excellent drummers. All along, though, McHenry knew whom he really needed to get, so finally he just booked studio time and did it. Featuring Paul Motian documents the very first time these four musicians played together, although Monder had been a member of Motian’s Electric Bebop Band for several years already.

The first song, “Alfombra Magica,” states the delightful melody without drums. Motian crashes in on the bridge and right away it feels like he was meant to be there. The longish duo of McHenry and Motian on “Alfombra” is strong, and it’s a particularly good example of how McHenry improvises with intervals in a very unique way. He begins with all fifths, and then circles outwards from a held note in a way that sounds vaguely Arabic. The fifths return, then some simple scales that would be banal without Motian’s fire behind him. A long held note brings in the band and some fast saxophone curlicues. It is a model of surreal yet intelligent improvisation.

Motian contributes a few rough edges (he doesn’t really play the form on “Social Unconsciousness,” which could benefit from some Rieser-like clarity), but also much of the disc’s excitement. Motian is a very special and profound drummer. When he was younger (he was born in 1931), he played in many different styles, but at this point he really just does what he does, doing it better than anybody. Dave King calls him the Mark Rothko of drums. Reid has noted that everything Motian does seems somewhat sloppy but in reality is extremely precise. He’s also one of the “one-note elect”: like Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Haden, you just need to hear a single articulation from Paul Motian to tell that it is him. The trio of McHenry, Anderson, and Motian on “Time” might be the disc’s highlight. They sound effortless.

This band got to play live quite a bit at the Village Vanguard and learn a new book before going back into the studio. Most musicians, given the chance of wider exposure through regularly playing the Vanguard with Paul Motian, would choose to make their music more accessible. Not McHenry: Roses is as hard as granite. Listening to it reminds me of how a Gerhard Richter color chart stares you down.

By now, McHenry is getting somewhere comparable to Steve Lacy or Roscoe Mitchell. Like those uncompromising artists, nothing is for “show.” It is all fierce and occasionally relentless: there isn’t one song with a steady beat on this record, and as a result not much variety. But the integrity factor is high indeed. Who else but Bill McHenry would dare to barely cruise over Monder’s distorted chromatic density on “The City” with such patience? It’s sort of like Lester Young playing in a bar on Mars.

The biggest overall difference between Featuring Paul Motian and Roses is the more integrated sound of the current record. On the first one, Motian showed up, kicked some ass with kids he didn’t know, and went home. Here, he is gentler, moodier, and more part of the ensemble. On the free piece “The Abyss Opens Up,” Motian starts with a fractured rumba, Monder drones one note, and McHenry and Anderson play slow dissonant counterpoint against each other. It is quite grim, but also draws you into some strange place that only this band could find. Motian’s five bars of hesitant backbeat is the perfect coda.

Faux-naif McHenry composition continues on Roses, with pieces like “The African Song” (which doesn’t even have blowing) and “The New One, ” which begins with a phrase of superb C major banality and ends with a surprising coda in minor. “Roses,” “Keys of C” and “The Lizard Song” are more involved compositions. The style of the song doesn’t impact the improvising that much; every time after the head is done, the attitude is clearly “let’s see what happens.” McHenry’s opening intervallic improvisation on the title song is stunning, and Monder really delivers on his virtuosic solo during “Lizard.” Throughout, Anderson and Motian swing the free like they mean it.

I probably like Graphic the best of these discs. However, it could very well be that after living with Roses for longer, my ears will decode the DNA further and I will be able to walk among its abysses with greater comfort. If that happens, it will surely become my new favorite.

The closing McHenry/Monder duo “Photo-Synthesis” suggests a convenient bookend with the closing duo on Rest Stop from almost ten years earlier. Let’s hope for much more.





A final note about Bill McHenry:

Not every tenor saxophonist of Bill’s generation has taken the trouble to have a truly distinctive tone, but Bill has had his own sound for as long as I have known him (and certainly by the time of Rest Stop). I sometimes hear a bit of Dewey Redman’s smeary roar or the kind of breathy grit I associate with an earlier player like Don Byas, but even these influences are far off the beaten path.

Bill is especially careful to never use any of the bright sheen of the prevalent post-Coltrane school. This care is why I am always highly respectful of Bill McHenry as a peer, a respect I would have regardless of friendship. In the post-jazz education era, there are too many similar-sounding improvisers. At times, the tenor saxophone, arguably the flagship instrument of jazz, has threatened to become somewhat anonymous. Fortunately for this music, Bill is in a class of one.