I’ve been curious about tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry’s playing for a while. He recently released a recording of new music, La Peur Du Vide, but his previous recording, Ghosts of the Sun, received a lot of acclaim (see the end of this review), so I thought I would use this as my introduction to McHenry’s work.
The recording starts out with the slow, melancholy “Ms.
Polley,” kind of a jazzy, low-key version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Music of
the Night.” McHenry’s tone on the tenor
saxophone is solid and workmanlike—clear, rounded, and slightly dry. Ben Monder’s guitar provides a spacy
orchestra in the background behind McHenry’s playing, along with thoughtful
playing from the late drummer Paul Motian and bassist Reid Anderson. Anderson then takes the spotlight with a
gentle, lyrical solo, Motian and Monder continuing their more-than-just background
playing. McHenry’s following solo is
mainly a smattering of quiet runs without much direction. McHenry and Monder play the melancholy melody
in unison to the end. This cut is pretty
and contemplative, but ultimately comes off as a bit listless.
“La Fuerza” starts off a bit like a paso doble, the
soundtrack to a bullfight. The rhythm
players lay down a nice groove, and McHenry produces some interesting tongueing
effects in his solo, but he doesn’t generate much with the opportunity he’s
given. Anderson plays a brief solo with
Motian’s accompaniment. “Anti Heroes”
has a fine, strong melody, almost a march.
Monder provides an imaginative, excellent narrative in his solo, a
little lesson in how to improvise. McHenry finally stretches out a bit with a
flowing, cohesive solo, continuing the self-assured flavor of the song. The title tune is a lower mid-tempo,
impressionistic piece. In his solo,
McHenry uses his saxophone like a paintbrush, dabbing little bits of melody
here and there. Monder noodles around
with a reverb-y solo, somewhat in duet with Anderson. There is a lot of subtle interplay between Monder,
Anderson, and Motian here. This is music
evocative of desert landscapes.
“William (Drums)” is a short piece that is basically a mid-tempo
Motian drum solo, but the other quartet members come in near the end to fade
out the cut. “Little One” is a mid-tempo
song, sounding like a sort of jazzy version of a Burt Bacharach tune, with
McHenry singing the melody on his sax. McHenry
and Monder improvise a low-key duet, staying close to the melody of the tune, before
closing out the brief cut. “William
(III)” has a halting, fragmented melody without any clear meter. McHenry plays a meticulous, composed-sounding
solo. Monder then takes over with a wild
and highly distorted solo.
“Lost Song” begins as a slow duet between McHenry and Monder,
and it develops into a slowly strolling ballad with the other quartet members joining
in. McHenry plays a slow, ruminating
solo. Then Anderson takes over with a
more engaging solo, Monder playing arpeggios behind him. Monder then provides a nice interlude,
strumming some sustained, distorted chords.
The players close with the tune’s pretty melody. The recording ends with “Roses (II).” McHenry begins the tune with some of his more
intense and engaged playing, employing some interesting runs, altissimo swoops,
and his unusual tongueing technique. The
tune itself is a disjointed, out-of-time collection of phrases, closing out the
recording on a somewhat unsettling note.
Ghosts of the Sun is a very low-key, minimalist affair. To really appreciate it requires a fair
amount of concentration by the listener; you have to come to this music as much
as it comes to you. (I’ll confess I had
a much more positive attitude toward this recording after I listened to it for
a second time.) Also, the musicians are
much more interested in subtly blending and fitting into each piece than in
making personal statements--this is reflected in the brevity of the solos and
the pieces themselves—though the improvisational excellence of these players
can’t help but shine through. McHenry is
particularly self-effacing in his playing.
He doesn’t seem to approach the saxophone as a saxophone, choosing not
to take advantage of the instrument’s natural tonal and intervallic strengths. (In this regard, I agree with a comment in a
review by Raul D’Gama Rose in All About Jazz: “it seems to be a matter of
coincidence that he [McHenry] is a tenor saxophonist. He might just as well have been a trumpeter,
a pianist or even a violinist.") So, from
a jazz saxophonist’s point of view, this recording is fairly unnourishing. Overall, Ghosts of the Sun provides fine
music, but will probably be more appealing to those who gravitate toward
minimalism and desert landscapes. As a
more meat-and-potatoes jazz listener, this recording left me somewhat cold.
Part of the “acclaim” of Ghosts of the Sun includes the fact
that it landed on A Blog Supreme’s list of ten best jazz recordings of2011. In the entry for this recording, there’s
also a link to listen to the cut, “La Fuerza.”
This will help you decide if Ghosts of the Sun is likely to suit your