Saxophonist Bill McHenry is an utter mystery to me, in the best possible sense. He's a young jazz musician attempting to carve out a distinct identity for himself in a city that boasts innumerable fine players, and in a music that prizes individual identity, yet arguably has few stones left to overturn -- or so it might seem, anyway. And somehow, he's unarguably succeeding.
Ben Ratliff, the excellent and broadminded chief jazz critic at The New York Times, has been writing perceptively about McHenry for some years now, which made the saxophonist a player I'd long hoped to encounter live. And certainly, the quartet McHenry led at the Village Vanguard tonight was the band with which to hear him: Guitarist Ben Monder and bassist Reid Anderson have been among McHenry's foremost collaborators for a decade now, and the group was completed by the protean Paul Motian, a drummer for whom the overused adjective "legendary" seems entirely fitting.
Jazz is a music that eventually prizes iconoclasts, but positively reveres antecedents. Part of the game in evaluating a young player is figuring out where he or she came from, stylistically. And that's what makes McHenry so pleasantly perplexing. He partakes of the lineage, certainly: As a saxophonist, he's studied Sonny Rollins and Dewey Redman, but sounds like neither. His musical presence is more circumspect; his sound is smaller, but not at all ungenerous. McHenry's compositions in some respects recall those of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, but not entirely, and not slavishly.
To call McHenry's progress rapid is something of a gross understatement; listening to his 1998 CD, Rest Stop, and his 2003 release with tonight's band, Bill McHenry Quartet Featuring Paul Motian -- both on the invaluable and well-named Spanish label Fresh Sounds New Talent -- you're hard pressed to accept the fact that the same saxophonist made both records. (The same is true of Monder, who plays on both, and whose own latest release, Oceana, is an engrossing experience.)
If a single word can be used to describe McHenry's style, it would be patience. Even at quicker tempos, his conceptions spin out in their own time, often at peculiar angles with unexpected resolutions. Like Coleman, McHenry possesses a gift for unspooling elliptical melodies that nonetheless linger in the mind's ear, which are then wrapped in Monder's dense chords or caressed by his throaty lines. Anderson's reflexes are so sharp as to verge on prescience: He always seems to know where even the most seemingly wayward improvisation is headed, pacing it with a steady pulse or commenting upon it with a fluttering countermelody. Motian propels the group with constantly shifting patterns dependent more on touch and timbre than steady beat, broken up by sudden silences as startling as his rare outbursts.
Of the seven selections played in tonight's first set, six were new compositions. In the opener, provisionally titled "Roses," McHenry pushed a clean, unhurried melodic line through dusky clouds from Monder and Anderson, dragging wispy contrails in its wake. Still more tentatively titled, one suspects, was "Narcissism Has Entered My Subconscious, But It's Hooking Me Up," in which the melody seemed to pour out in a singular exhalation, set against the syncopations of an abstracted Latin pulse. Monder's liquid chords and punctuating twangs sometimes recalled the sound of Bill Frisell, but his tone and time were all his own.
McHenry's take on "I Can't Get Started" seemed shy, even diffident, his circumspect posture affording no schmaltz or posturing in the well-worn standard. The next tune, spontaneously dubbed "R.J." for a friend in the audience, featured a catchy theme built of Monkish ascents and bluesy tumbles, and elicited some of McHenry's most extrovert growls and slurs. "Taylor," named for another friend in the house, conjured the dreamlike reverie of Motian's trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano; a lyrical solo by Anderson, accompanied by a radiant, fluttering tonal wash from Monder and a timeless shimmer from Motian, provided the set's most exquisite moment.
Another ballad followed, "Stinky Cove" -- a perhaps-unfortunate name for an evocative vista from McHenry's Maine childhood. An old-fashioned, romantic melody not so far removed from "Body and Soul" could easily have lapsed into mannerism, were it not for the band's general understatement and the quiet intensity with which McHenry picked apart and thoroughly investigated isolated notes and patterns during his solo. Ending the set was an unnamed, propulsive number -- a severe, stormy whorl that served to encapsulate in miniature the remarkable sense of welcome disorientation that had marked the entire set.
After the set, I was energized, elated and gabby, to say the least. I still don't quite know where McHenry is to be classified in the standard jazz taxonomy -- but what a welcome surprise it is to be so flummoxed.
Anton Bruckner - Symphony No. 9 - Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Georg Tintner (via eMusic)
Michelle Makarski - To Be Sung on the Water (ECM New Series) - due in late March, a luminous collection of solo and duo pieces by Giuseppe Tartini and Donald Crockett
Napalm Death - Scum (Earache); Diatribes (Earache); Order of the Leech (Spitfire); The Code Is Red...Long Live the Code (Century Media)
Flook - Haven (World Village)
Album - Microbricolages (Delhotel)
Bill McHenry Quartet - Featuring Paul Motian (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Paul Motian Quintet - Misterioso (Soul Note)
Bill McHenry Quartet - Rest Stop (Fresh Sound New Talent)