XRIJF Day 4 – The Mel Henderson Trio
Excellence and informality seem to be mutually exclusive. We have many image of people, artists, and scientists who create beautiful and worthwhile things with intense glares of focus and concentration, maybe a furrowed brow or a bead of sweat. For musicians, it’s usually the opposite. The more relaxed we are, the better we can perform. Our minds are clearer, our fingers and bodies are looser. What makes the Rochester Jazz Fest so special is that we can incredible musicians who come to town who are really loose.
That certainly the case with the Mel Henderson Trio yesterday afternoon at the Rochester Central Library. A place where some of our great local acts play, the small stone and garden area of the library hosts a small performance area underneath the shade of a gazebo. On a day when the sun was baking the brave listeners who didn’t sit in the shade, the music was cooking.
This trio comprises Rochester Contemporary Media School teacher Mel Henderson on guitar, RCMS founder Sean Jefferson on drums, and renowned Gerry Youngman on guitar. If that lineup looks familiar, it should. Those guys are actually Paradigm Shift, the Grammy-nominated trio. Henderson and Youngman have been playing together for decades, and Jefferson and Henderson have “only” been playing together for 12 years. The chemistry and communication was evident.
There was very little talking between songs, which suited everyone just fine. Henderson had a couple funny comments about the heat (because, honestly, it was really terrible), and joked around describing one of their tunes “My Wife’s Goulash,” saying that it’s “really, really good,” and advised us not to laugh as much until we’ve had it.
Their combination of the drums, organ (Youngman played a Nord C3, but it sounded just like the classic Hammond B3), and guitar is a classic soul jazz lineup. However, what surprised me was their approach, and perhaps because this because they’re the same lineup as Paradigm Shift, but I was expecting a more guitar-driven sound. Instead, everyone in the group contributed equally to the metaphorical musical bus; Jefferson was the tires and the engine, Youngman was the wheel, and Henderson was everything else that made it so fine.
Throughout the whole set, except for one, they played original tunes. The groove was tight, and you couldn’t help but have your groove grimace on. I even caught myself air drumming or twice. Well it was more like three times.
With those the soul and gospel chord changes, it was all developed musically and rhythmically was very impressive; idiomatic but not contrite or derived. Youngman effortlessly combined and synthesized his bass lines, whether they were soul lines or walking, with his right. Henderson, who mostly played with his thumb (occasionally with another finger or arpeggiating a chord with his index finger), was a sweet combination of Grant Green’s soul with a stroke of blues with Wes Montgomery’s style and taste. Jefferson is an incredibly crisp drummer. Everything was distinct and precise, but never lost the emotion and fire the group plays with. He balanced himself perfectly with the group, particularly playing outside.
It was a great way to kick off the day, with an hour of feel-good groove and soul.