Always expect a surprise from Joe Henderson. Aside from the ever-appealing qualities of his playing, a good part of the pleasure of hearing the San Francisco-based tenor saxophonist lies in the fact that he never quite does what one anticipates.
With a new album about to be released in which he features the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim, one might have envisioned a few sambas and bossa novas during his opening set at Catalina Bar & Grill on Wednesday night. But Henderson clearly wasn't in a Brazilian state of mind, preferring instead to concentrate on his usual mix of standards and jazz tunes.
And that, of course, was no problem, since he probably could make musical magic out of the tones on a push-button phone. His initial number, Billy Strayhorn's lovely "Isfahan," immediately set the mood for the evening, with a brief theme statement and a long, vigorously exploratory improvisation. This is the kind of playing--this capacity to transform the most excoriating tours through his musical imagination into intensely listenable experiences--that has brought Henderson to the forefront of contemporary jazz.
It was even more apparent on "Body and Soul," a work that no tenor saxophonist can approach without a subliminal awareness of the defining version created by Coleman Hawkins six decades ago. But Henderson took the risk, and doubled it by performing the first chorus alone, before bringing the rhythm in for a full-fledged examination of the tune. The result was a warm, intimate variation that built upon the past while uniquely recognizing both the essence of the song and the individuality of Henderson's own perspective.
Henderson's back-up ensemble was a virtual Los Angeles all-star assemblage, with Billy Childs on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Ralph Penland on drums. It was especially fascinating to hear Childs performing in a pure, straight-ahead jazz environment, in which he had the opportunity to stretch out, undistracted by the need to either lead the band or provide new compositions. His soloing throughout, notably so on a steaming romp through "What Is This Thing Called Love," underscored his ability to be a world- class player.
Dumas was, as always, sturdy and dependable, making the best of his opportunities to solo. And Penland, after a tendency to be a bit too busy in the early part of the program, soon settled down into his familiar urgent rhythmic groove.
* The Joe Henderson Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $17 cover tonight and Saturday, $14 on Sunday, with two-drink minimum. Henderson performs two shows nightly, at 8:30 and 10:30.