From 2013. The tenor saxophone is at the heart and soul of jazz. It represents spirit, a sense of freedom, and it’s about expression. No finer exponent of the instrument, and the wider tradition in transition, Craig Handy, returned with his first album in 13 years, 2nd Line Smith
The saxophone is also a symbol and its best players speak for the music whether they play a classic ballad, the fastest routine imaginable, or trade fours congenially with the rest of the band. They might even cut up another player if they feel like it just, well…, because they can. And when there’s a saxophone in the band whether the leader is a tenorist or not everyone sits up and takes note. The sound takes time to mature to speak beyond the notes and that maturity can come at any age. A tenorist is a tenor player at heart whether that player moves over to alto or any other of the saxophone family or moves across to flute.
California-born 51-year-old Craig Handy is one of the masters of the instrument but yet somehow hasn’t made an album of his own since Flow came out 13 years ago. But it’s not as if he has not been recording, however. Far from it, appearing in the interim with the hard bop supergroup The Cookers on recording projects and touring, captured to considerable effect on record with trombonist Conrad Herwig on The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock; or as a key part of the Mingus Big Band appearing on their albums Live at Jazz Standard, Live in Tokyo, and best of all, Tonight at Noon. But now’s the time for Handy, and it’s not even just about the saxophone, as Handy, the torch handed down to him by James Newton, also plays sinuous flute set against sousaphone and rhythm guitar on the tune ‘Alfredo’, a tune on his major label debut for the Sony-owned OKeh label and his Jimmy Smith-meets-New Orleans album 2nd Line Smith just released.
Handy’s debut for a label practically synonymous with the early recordings of Louis Armstrong, appropriately enough, features another trumpet icon in guest Wynton Marsalis, who Handy goes way back with to the 1980s, and also there's a guest appearance by Dee Dee Bridgewater, the classic jazz singer who Handy has worked with quite extensively over the years.
Joined by New Jersey-born guitarist Matt Chertkoff, particularly expressive on ‘I’ll Close My Eyes’; B3 Hammond organist Kyle Koehler, who’s on the soulful James Hunter 6 album Minute By Minute and a lively presence here on opener ‘Minor Chant’; the joker in the pack and engine of the album is funky sousaphone player Clark Gayton (driving Wes Montgomery’s joyous ‘OGD aka Road Song’); while Dee Dee guests effortlessly in an uncheesy version of ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’, with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drummer Ali Jackson’s rim shots and snare-on syncopating a feature drummers will appreciate. Handy and Jackson also go way back, appearing on Flow, Handy’s fourth and last album as leader the distant predecessor to 2nd Line Smith. You could draw a line from Baby Dodds to Herlin Riley, who’s also on the album (flying here on the “fonky” ‘Ready and Able’), and really feel the fit. Wynton’s brother, another New Orleans connection, Jason Marsalis, is also here on large chunks of the album, and Wynton himself is on a raucous ‘Mojo Workin’ with a lively Dr John-like vocal by bluesman Clarence Spady.
“I was overdue for a solo recording project,” Handy says, speaking on the phone from his home in New Jersey, ahead of returning to the road for dates in London and Ireland. “I was quite comfortable being a sideman over the past 12 or 13 years. I found it difficult to lead my own groups. I was just having trouble as it was hard to get four busy musicians together, so it took a back seat to my being a sideman. My father passed away and I had a reality check. He had been fighting cancer for three years and my sister and I were hoping that he’d make a miraculous recovery but the truth was he was getting worse, heading into remission now and then, but the inevitable finally happened, and I hit a bottom rock, and it was a cold slap in the face. I had been putting my life on hold while he was sick, hoping he would get better. Finally when he passed (I still have my mother), it was a reminder of my own mortality and the blinders got stripped off. There was an adjustment period to come to grips with his passing and figuring out a new recovering therapy.”
Yet 2nd Line Smith, given the grieving that Handy has been through, is a startlingly affirmative affair. “It’s a celebration of life – once I put my father’s passing into perspective it was a case of remembering that people here in the western world have all these wonderful things to distract us but yet not everybody has access to it. Part of it is the realisation that we have a wonderful culture in the western world but there are more people who don’t have the things we have. What it is that we all share is that we all care about common points. We’re all subject to the same laws of physics and one thing we all appreciate is music.”
Handy had a plan, and in the sleeve notes explains: “The roux is to the sauce as dance is to the music. But the roux of the jazz recipe – dance – has been absent in most of jazz for too long.” He picks up the theme in a strong communicative voice: “I was trying to figure out how to bring dance back into jazz. Sometimes there’d be a dance band down the street and jazz in the concert hall with people falling asleep after a hard day’s work. I wanted that missing vibrancy to be part of the album.”
Handy must have also had a notion about the sheer life force of jazz present in years gone by and still there to be witnessed through his work with the revelatory hard bop supergroup The Cookers where he found himself in the remarkable company of Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, David Weiss, George Cables, Cecil McBee, and Billy Hart. What if The Cookers played the music of 2nd Line Smith, what would that be like? “It would be different and it wouldn’t be,” Handy says enigmatically. “They understand the deep tradition, the origins came from whatever happened in New Orleans and the closer you are to the time period, as the people in The Cookers were [mostly] born in the 30s and 40s, they’re more privy to the early forms. But they would handle it with more confidence. Billy Hart is the first person who’ll tell you he appreciates Baby Dodds.”
Handy attended North Texas State University from 1981-1984, and came to New York in the mid-1980s later touring extensively with Roy Haynes where one of his features would be ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ a ballad he loves to this day. But playing with singer Betty Carter and also pianist Herbie Hancock were also crucial milestones for the Californian. “Betty was fearless,” he says. “She didn’t have any fear of putting forth what she had at any given moment. I learnt not to be afraid, to use that emotion as source for your expression. She was dynamic with the different musicians in the band and she was one of the great schools of the craft to learn the application. If it was a college course it would be a doctorate programme. She would snap you back to the path, stopping the band on the bandstand for not paying attention or being tired. She was never afraid to put everything on the line, or ask the musicians why they are playing the wrong chords. It never happened to me as I was an add-on, not part of the rhythm section, and I was working with her for two years. By the time I came in all the material had been gone over and I knew what I was going to play.”
As for his experience working with Herbie Hancock (taking over from Michael Brecker in The New Standard band on the road in the 1990s) Handy says: “Herbie Hancock is down to earth and a person so full of humanity that he never puts on any airs or graces. But the only thing is he’s on another level from anyone else, and even if you have one working ear you’ll understand that this guy is not your average musician. He’s always respectful to people doing their jobs around him, very mindful of trying to be a human being and to maintain this calm and equanimity that gives you confidence to be able to go forward. If you want to try something he would be there. It’s that cat-like sense.”
At this feline turn in the conversation it would be remiss not to talk about a certain Hammond organ player even if ‘The Cat’ does not feature on 2nd Line Smith but as the hero of the album much else about the Incredible Jimmy Smith is highly pertinent. “We did five or six concerts around New York but didn’t have the drummer and sousaphone player. It was straightahead, and swinging. Having never played with Don Patterson or Jimmy Smith, having never played in a Hammond organist’s band, it was always something I wanted to do, to seek out. That was the impetus to work with the organ. With the first version of the band I realised after the fifth or sixth gig that these Stanley Turrentine/Jimmy Smith/Wes Montgomery tunes were the pinnacle but I’m never going to be as groovin’ as Stanley or Jimmy. I think I hit a wall and I was thinking this has been done before and how am I going to add to the lexicon of this music. And I was thinking about The Cat. What is it that makes those songs? And I realised that it was the drum beats from New Orleans, and this is the way to go. Playing with a sousaphone is something to take advantage of, the rhythm is the most important thing that makes or breaks the feel.”
Handy, whether he’s playing tenor or flute on this record or with the Mingus Big Band, always comes across as if he’s subverting the norm not by doing anything outrageous but just putting in a layer of expression that seems to lift the lid like plain speaking, a certain frisson. And there’s that additional sense of creative flux the Mingus band always seems to be in. They could never be a tux-and-nostalgia outfit coasting along: the spirit of the counterculture is alive and well. But how does Handy feel this febrile heat is retained?
“You have to give credit to Charles Mingus,” he says straight off the bat. “There’s nothing like what he does. He was a virtuoso bass player and an uncelebrated composer in his day yet a very important figure in American music. We have 300 songs of his and we’ve played about 100, and all credit to the musicians: they pick the other musicians. We started with Mingus Dynasty with the guys who played with Mingus, and then there were people like me who didn’t. There’s a strong connection worked in. The creative process is absorbed as if by osmosis and it’s a powerful indoctrination. People are coming in one by one to join, it’s not 10 at a time. Everybody is vibing with Mingus, and Mingus valued self expression to the highest degree.”
One thing that might surprise people who listen to 2nd Line Smith is the sheer fervour and vitality Wynton Marsalis brings to ‘Mojo Workin’’, the eighth track on the album, a song you might think has been done to death but comes across here as box fresh. Handy heard the song first via bluesman Muddy Waters’ version and then Ray Charles. As for Wynton, his take on the song is up there in terms of spirit with 2005’s Live at the House of Tribes, arguably Wynton’s last great showing on an album of his own. “To have Wynton play on a project is a great satisfaction. He’s a great player, one of the great trumpet players, and he came and he burned it down. I was getting goose bumps.” Written by Stephen Graham.