Blood from Stars

The Jazz Loft Project met musician Joe Henry a decade ago when the Splinter Group (creators of this website) introduced us.  The Splinter guys had worked with Joe during their time with the seminal label Mammoth Records.  I had been impressed with Joe’s album, Scar, which features some of my favorite musicians – Brad Mehldau, Ornette Coleman, Meshell Ndegeocello, among others.  Around that time Joe saw our exhibition, Dream Street, concerning Smith’s Pittsburgh work, at the International Center of Photography.

Scar is held together by a cinematic vision, a sweep of sound and lyrical imagery that Gene Smith – the “master of the photographic essay” – would admire.  Joe’s subsequent records, all different, have a feel of movies, maybe something like Fellini’s Roma, drawing on a deep sense of history while always being modern.  There is a beautiful variety built into Joe’s music – a myriad of perspectives woven together – that reminds me of a comment by the great film editor Walter Murch, who said that Beethoven was “the father of cinema” (or something like that), meaning that the sudden shifts and fades and cuts and dissolves in the composers music were a model for film making to come much later.  This idea is relevant to Gene Smith’s photo layouts, too.

Joe has also won awards producing albums by Solomon Burke, Mary Gauthier, Bettye LaVette, and most recently a remarkable sequence – Mose Allison, Allen Toussaint, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Joe is to producing what Hall Overton was to teaching, drawing out the best of somebody’s music rather than imprinting a signature style everywhere.  I’d love to see him produce some more jazz albums.   I’d like to see him produce a collaboration between Branford Marsalis and Derek Trucks.  There is potential for something unusual and epic, palette cleansing, with those two guys who have shared stages before with the Allman Brothers and with Derek’s band, and Joe could find it and nurture it out of them.

Anyway, you should check out Joe’s latest album, Blood from Stars, which features Smith’s industrial images from the 1950s on the cover (below) and inside liner notes and another Jazz Loft friend Jason Moran is featured on a solo piano prelude.  Joe’s son Levon, a first-year student in the New School’s jazz program in New York, plays saxophone on the album.  It’s Joe’s best album, in my view, which is saying a lot.  He’s on a new tour and this Monday at the Blue Note in New York, and in other cities after that, Levon joins the band.  A few years ago, when Levon was in his mid-teens, I heard him woodshed for a few hours on tunes by Wayne Shorter and Hank Mobley.  He also was curious about research I’ve been doing on the late pianist Sonny Clark’s childhood and family background, which impressed me.  Last fall we had a couple of Jazz Loft events in New York and we employed Levon and his band, most memorably with loft alum Ron Free, who said the experience was highly enjoyable.  After the latter event I was walking down Broadway with a couple of musicians and a former loft resident said, “My God.  Who was that on saxophone?  He must be twenty years old.”  I said, “Younger than that.”

-Sam Stephenson


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