Within a refined setting of easy listening pop ballads and lightly funky up-tempo selections produced by Al McKay, Henderson proves himself an assured vocalist with mastery of clarity and phrasing. The problem here is the material isn't challenging enough – it's often formulaic and derivative of other early-'80s releases. Even a contribution from Stevie Wonder, "Crush on You," wanders into oblivion. But the singer's debonair tone and elegant, polished diction makes the weaker sound stronger. A perfect example is the mid-tempo "I'd Rather Be Gone," which suffers from a sleepy melody and clichéd rhythm arrangement.
Listening to Sketches of Life is something like finding a diamond midway through a box of Cracker Jack. It starts off with some typically easygoing midtempo quiet storm action that offers more cinders than real fire, but then it suddenly explodes with soul, jazz, and fusion – and some of the leader's finest performances this side of the old Crusaders. Henderson's trombone turbulence finds willing support from friends old (saxman Wilton Felder) and new (Rob Mullins, Dwight Sills), and these all-stars stretch the limits of the pop side of jazz. Especially impressive is Lee Oskar's bluesy, Toots Thielemans-styled harmonica playing. Henderson could do just fine without the rap and chant, but otherwise, he leads a fun-filled cruise through adventureland.
Trombonist Wayne Henderson has had a surprisingly sporadic solo career. During his years with the Jazz Crusaders, he only led two record dates of his own, and it was not until a decade after he left the group that he led his third session. Henderson does take some fine solos on this generally rewarding disc, which also features tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder (his old section mate in the Crusaders), keyboardist Rob Mullins, and guitarist Dwight Sills. The release, which is subtitled "The Next Crusade," is an extension of Henderson's old band, and the selections range from straight-ahead (including "Joshua") to soul-jazz and some funkier sounds. Worth picking up, although this CD will probably be difficult to find.
The Tyler, TX-raised Bugs Henderson took his cues from the wealth of great roadhouse blues and blues-rock guitarists that were around Dallas, including Freddie King, Johnny Winter, and literally dozens of others on the Texas music scene of the '60s. Henderson has cited James Burton, Ricky Nelson's guitarist, as a major influence.
Van Ruller has arranged the Joe Henderson pieces for guitar so beautifully. And it's a great trio. Although the music is extremely technically accomplished, you feel the emotion and mood of each piece comes first. Van Ruller has a unique sound, not really like any other jazz guitarist I know. Some tracks have a bitter-sweet yet peaceful vibe that reminds me more of Bill Evans' piano than other guitarists. There's Scofield-like dissonance, Jim Hall-like swing, Rosenwinkelesque moments, but really it's an original and wonderful record. I'm sure Joe Henderson would have loved it.