With 2004’s Live, former Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul sideman Scott Henderson let his otherworldly jazz informed blues intensity catch fire at California’s La Ve Lee jazz club. Accompanied by longtime Tribal Tech drummer/shouter Kirk Covington and bassist John Humphrey, the trio storms through two sets of primarily original compositions, with a little Wayne Shorter (“Fee Fi Fo Fum”) thrown in for good measure, as well as a tune from his collaborations with fellow virtuosi Vic Wooten and Steve Smith in Vital Tech Tones. It’s heady stuff- busy, intense, edge of your seat kind of music-which is all the more reason to love it.
Maybe if you try to imagine a guitarist endowed with the intensity of Hendrix and the often inhuman phrasing of Jeff Beck, but with a harmonic understanding the two never really explored, you’ll have an idea where Henderson’s coming from. Track four from the first disc, “Xanax,” isn’t exactly the most relaxing experience you’ll ever have, but the way he pulls (drags?) the notes kicking and screaming from his guitar is eye-opening, to say the least. Here’s a player that gets you right in the gut the way some of the finest blues guitarists can, but that draws on melodic ideas that venture far beyond the basic “blues scale.” His strangled little mini-cadenza five minutes into “Xanax” crackles and sparks like a live wire, and just when you think he’s completely lost control he brings things back from the abyss. Scary.
It’s interesting to note that many of these songs operate off of very familiar compositional and rhythmic structures (the shuffle of “Taco’s Are Good,” the mutant country rave-up of “Hillbilly In The Band”) but it’s Henderson’s delivery and deliberately skewed ideas that keep things from getting too comfortable. And while all three players are complete monsters, this isn’t exactly a “shred-fest” in any sense. Henderson isn’t one of those “rehash the same licks in a different key” kind of players — like a jazzbo, he’s reacting to each moment of the musical conversation with something new, whether it’s a stream of notes from an entirely remote key (that in his hands sounds perfectly logical) or a hair-raising, whammy bar tortured shriek from his custom John Suhr guitar. Those needing inspiration to practice their three octave Lydian dominant arpeggios may need to look elsewhere — but those wanting inspiration to make better music, to hear what happens when a great player dives headlong into the unexpected waters of true improvisation, will find lots to love here.
Disc two opens with “Dog Party,” a song about ... a dog party, actually. This was the title track from Henderson’s first official “blues” release back in 1994, which was kind of a shock to the system for fans weaned on his more jazz/fusion oriented work with Tribal Tech. As expected, he takes the song on another Hendrix by way of Berklee solo excursion, full of tension, release and unrelenting groove. When things drop to a relative whisper on Shorter’s “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” you can’t help but bite your nails waiting for the other shoe to drop, because you know damn well it’s going to. And at the halfway mark, it sure does- but it never stops swinging, which is a lesson unto itself.
Downsides? The vocal tunes are love it or hate it fare. There’s a certain tongue in cheek Zappa-ness to them that’s clever, but I found myself tapping my foot and waiting for the jamming to commence. Thankfully, it always does. Things take a severe left on “Nairobe Express,” with Henderson’s drastically tweaked “space crickets” intro giving way to ruthless solos from bassist John Humphrey and drummer Kirk Covington. The set closes with more blues/rock lunacy on “Devil Boy” and the screwball rockabilly of “Hillbilly In The Band,” with the guitarist tossing out gritty open-string country licks slathered in some kind of Martian hot sauce. It’s spicy, a little hard to digest, and addictive- like the whole album. Highly recommended.