Review: Wayne Henderson at Ronnie’s

Dave Jones enjoys an evening of Texan funk and choice wood-chopping as Henderson's band measures up to the classic Sample, Felder, Carlton and Hooper lineup

This was the first of four nights for Wayne Henderson’s Jazz Crusaders at Ronnie’s, and before the funk started I was fortunate enough to catch the last few numbers of the support set by The Ronnie Scott's All Stars with vocalist Polly Gibbons. Listening to Gibbons, it crossed my mind more than once that she would be a welcome addition to the instrumental main act, particularly if Street Life reared its head later in the evening, and sure enough, later in the main set Henderson introduced both Street Life and Gibbons to the enthusiastic audience.

Simon Cooke introduced Henderson and Co with an implication that the “…serious stuff…” of last week (at Ronnie’s) was over, and judging by Henderson’s leopard-print apron that’s would what you might expect, but there was no lack of serious musical intent from this fine outfit. On the funky opener Stomp And Buck Dance, keyboard player Bill Steinway, ironically on the house Yamaha grand and MOTIF keyboard on this occasion, pitched in with a promising, building solo using a pseudo Fender Rhodes/Wurlitzer piano sound, and during the course of the evening he seemed more effective on this (which suited the largely funky set) than the acoustic grand.
A great Crusaders-style arrangement of Three Blind Mice was next up, followed by arguably the highlight of the evening, an imaginative version of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. Electric bassist Derrick Murdock provided a subtle solo introduction, maintaining his concentration, despite his "battle" against a fit of hiccups in the audience. The original has an inherently modal flavour, and Henderson and Co took full advantage of this in their ensuing Coltrane-style interpretation, with arguably the best solo of the evening by guitarist Brian Price.
Paul Russo on tenor and occasional soprano sax was most effective on the overtly funky numbers that followed, including Street Life, where we were also treated to the vocals of the aforementioned Gibbons, who made a fine impromptu deputy for the legendary Randy Crawford, enjoying playful but powerful scatting later in the song, alongside exchanges with Russo. Drummer Tony Moore responded in style with his drum solo to Henderson’s request to "chop wood" late in the set, and Henderson, having cued the band’s activities throughout with his well-humoured verbal encouragement, rounded off the set with some rapping, before lowering the dynamic and finally introducing his band.
It’s inevitable when hearing this material to yearn for the dulcet tones of Sample, Felder, and Carlton, and the great grooves of Stix Hooper, as that’s how we heard it all originally, but that’s not to take anything away from Henderson’s current outfit, so go and hear them, and Polly Gibbons for that matter, whether together or separately.

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