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.
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.