Eddie Henderson On Maturity And Revisiting Bop Standards

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Eddie Henderson says that during his career he’s had to develop the “maturity of knowing when to play and when not to play.”

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Trumpeter Eddie Henderson, who turns 80 in October, still is in top form, blowing with passion, intensity and uncommon sensitivity on his upcoming Smoke Sessions recording, Shuffle And Deal.

Henderson leads the way on blistering bop-informed workouts, sublime ballads, a breezy Latin-tinged number and the infectious shuffle-swing title track. The bandleader is joined here by pianist Kenny Barron, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and veteran drummer Mike Clark—all returning from Henderson’s 2018 Smoke Sessions release, Be Cool. Longtime McCoy Tyner bassist Gerald Cannon rounds out the group.

In late June, Henderson—speaking from his home in Mamaroneck, New York, while waiting out the pandemic—discussed his new album, why he went back to study bop standards and what he learned from Miles Davis.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You mentioned that Shuffle And Deal is a kind of continuation of Be Cool, but it shows where you are now.

Well, you’ve got to polish the mirror every day. You know, I’ve gone through phases over the years. When I first came out, I was with the Mwandishi group in the early ’70s. That was kind of free-floating, avant-gardish and full of electronics. But then I realized that I had a gap in my knowledge of bebop and standards, so I consciously went back and studied up on that material and subsequently played with Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson and others.

If you notice, on all of my albums since the ’90s, I’ve played a lot of standards. And there are standards on this new album as well—“Over The Rainbow,” “It Might As Well Be Spring,” “God Bless The Child” and “Smile.” I love ballads. So, it just shows who I am in the present, after 70 years of playing the trumpet. I started when I was 9.

The trumpet is such a physical instrument. It demands daily work to keep your embouchure together.

That’s right. Even during the coronavirus I’ve kept my chops up. You know, I watch TV during the day, but I’m buzzing the mouthpiece on-and-off all day, just to keep the tonality and the embouchure around the muscles there. The trumpet is different from playing the drums, for example. If you don’t play the drums for 10 years, and then you come back and hit the drum with a stick, it’s going to sound like a drum. If you lay off 10 days with the trumpet and you come back, you can’t even make a sound. So, you gotta keep those lips buzzing every day. Like with the saxophone, they blow all day long and the reed vibrates. But with the trumpet, it’s your lips that vibrate. That’s why I try to stay out of fights.

You show such great maturity on the ballads, but have a ferocious edge on the uptempo swing numbers. It’s a nice balance.

Yes, I think it’s an evolution in terms of all the records I’ve done. Each one, I think, has been a good product, but this is a culmination of all my efforts. And just like I said—polishing the mirror and just showing whatever expertise that I have. And I think it’s the pinnacle of my career, in terms of musicianship and understanding and maturity. Because, you know, you come out when you’re younger and you have flashy technique and everything. I don’t think I’ve lost that technique, but the maturity of knowing when to play and when not to play—I didn’t have that as a young man.

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