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Black Narcissus: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Staff Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Joe Henderson's 1969 album Power to the People featured a fantastic band: Herbie Hancock on keys, Ron Carter on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums (Mike Lawrence also joins on trumpet for several tunes, but sat out for "Black Narcissus"). They opened the album on a mellow note with "Black Narcissus". It's a catchy melody from Henderson's sax that floats nicely on Hancock's Rhodes chords and a simple bassline from Carter. The band plays through the melody first with almost no drums. DeJohnette begins to come in more audibly at the end of the first chorus at about 0:39, but then brings the volume back down as they play through the melody again. Henderson begins a sax solo at about 1:20 while the Rhodes continues to provide a nice cushion underneath. Carter's bass loosens up a bit underneath the sax solo while staying close to its original bassline. Wow, that sax line at about 2:00 from Henderson! Hancock's Rhodes solo begins at about 2:25. Beautiful, floating stuff with some nice bass underneath (particularly at about 3:05 when Carter plays some cool upward-swooping bent notes). The head returns at about 3:35, which the band plays through beautifully as in the opening. Very understated playing from everyone here, with the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts. It's a truism that it's not only the notes that you play, but also the ones you don't - this version of "Black Narcissus" is a treatise on that truism, with the quartet here making something very hard sound very easy and beautiful. The strength of Joe Henderson's melody carried through to later interpretations of "Black Narcissus".

"Black Narcissus" was covered several times between 1969 and 1990 or so (notably by Flora Purim in 1977 and by Cal Tjader in 1973), but we'll jump ahead to 1994 with Kevin Hays' Seventh Sense. Hays, on piano, is joined here by Seamus Blake on sax, Doug Weiss on bass, Steve Nelson on vibraphone, and Brian Blade on drums. Hays' version starts with the bass and piano playing the three-note bassline before the piano and vibes play the melody in unison. Blade's brushed snare drums and cymbals provide the rhythmic backing. The melody is played faithfully to Henderson's original, though with a somewhat different feel because of the different instrumentation. At about 1:20, this moves into a vibraphone solo. The drums are subtly pushing, while much of the rhythm here is supplied by Hays' piano comping. A fairly understated vibes solo, sticking close to the melody. At about 2:30, Hays takes a piano solo over the minimal drums and the "Black Narcissus" bassline. Weiss' bassline stays very close to the main bassline, though he alters it a bit while Hays takes a fairly low-key but engaging solo. Blade's drums here are playing relatively busily without big, crashing cymbals to push the tune forward while staying in this mellow pocket. At about 4:10, they return to the head, with the piano and vibes playing together in unison again as in the opening. A strong version of "Black Narcissus" with fine melodic solos from Steve Nelson and Kevin Hays and some great, subtle drumming from Brian Blade to seal the deal.

Helen Sung's 2006 Helenistique album, with Derrick Hodge on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, featured her version of "Black Narcissus". Sung's version starts at a slightly faster tempo than some of the versions above, and Hodge's bassline is notably different from the original, changing the feel here. Where Ron Carter's original bassline left that third note sort of hanging, Hodge's bassline here emphasizes the difference in time signature - Sung's arrangement is in 4/4 instead of Henderson's original waltz time. They play through the head and then just after 1:00, Sung moves into a swinging piano solo with a descending line after the tune's head. By about 3:00, Sung has moved some distance from the mellow mood on Henderson's original. It's a very good piano solo, and the trio sounds good with Hodge's walking bass over Nash's swinging drums. At about 3:30, Hodge takes a bass solo, sounding good here and digging into the melody with its altered rhythm. By 4:30, they've begun to move back into the head, with the melody embellished a bit by Sung's piano. Starting at about 5:15, they repeat a four-chord ascending line from the tune for Nash to take a drum solo underneath. They take this drum spotlight out to the finish. An interesting take on "Black Narcissus" with the changed time signature and bassline making a big difference in the overall feel of the tune.

Renee Rosnes' 2008 album Black Narcissus found the pianist celebrating Joe Henderson's music in a trio setting with Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash (also on Helen Sung's version above) on drums. This version starts with a bit of a floating introduction before moving into the tune's melody at about 0:15. Rosnes' piano line is beautifully articulated, and Washington's bass sounds great on this. Nash's drums are in the same vein as De Johnette's on the original or Blade's on the version from Seventh Sense, but a bit brighter. Rosnes takes a piano solo starting at about 1:20 or so, a nicely swinging thing. Just after 2:00, the trio is in a really fantastic mellow groove - this could go on for some time, just great stuff from all three musicians here. Rosnes' solo continually finds new wrinkles in the "Black Narcissus" melody and harmony, keeping this version interesting throughout. They return to the head at 3:20 or so and play through this once to close out the tune. A great, swinging piano trio version of "Black Narcissus" with an excellent solo from Rosnes and an excellent group dynamic.

Stanley Clarke's band with Hiromi Uehara and Ruslan Sirota on keyboards and Ron Bruner on drums played "Black Narcissus" at the 2010 Heineken Jazz Festival. "Black Narcissus" starts at about 47:00 in this video. They open with Uehara plucking the piano strings, Sirota playing a Rhodes-type sound on the keys, and Clarke playing the "Black Narcissus" bassline, emphasizing the third note. By about 47:35 they move into the head with Uehara and Sirota playing the melody in unison. Nice drum emphasis at about 48:35 followed by a slightly dissonant line from Uehara - cool section. They move out of the head into a piano solo from Uehara. It's very good, with patient playing and plenty of space. At about 50:30, Clarke's bass really pushes the low-end and the drums fall into a swinging pattern as Uehara digs into her solo. Some piano trills just after 51:15 are a false ending to the solo… some more interesting dissonance at about 52:00. At about 52:45, the piano solo comes to an end and Sirota takes a keyboard solo following a brief drumbreak. It's a fairly minimal solo at the beginning, emphasizing the cushion of chords. They get into a nice stop-start thing at about 54:15 with Sirota and Clarke linked together perfectly, and Sirota's solo picks up some steam after that section. Clarke mostly sits on one note here for quite a while as Sirota dances over his keyboard and the drums swing. By 55:45, this solo builds to a satisfying climax and they sustain this energy here for some time until the end of Sirota's solo at about 57:05. After Sirota's solo they break it way down, with Clarke playing a minimal bassline over minimal drums from Bruner. They move into a bass feature for Clarke with some great bubbly accompaniment from Sirota and patient build from Clarke. At 58:20 or so, he's digging into this solo, building momentum. As with Uehara and Sirota's keyboard solos, Clarke leaves plenty of space between his phrases in the solo here. Some big bass notes and stop-start playing just after an hour on the video here, followed by some fast bass lines that settle down shortly. At about 1:00:45, they've moved into a drum solo over spacy chords from Sirota. Just after 1:01:00, Bruner moves from brushes to drum sticks as his solo builds. He takes this solo pretty far out, coming back to "Black Narcissus" at about 1:03:00; the band returns to the head at about 1:03:30. They play through the head and bring it to a close at about 1:04:30. Great playing all around on this long version of "Black Narcissus". The composition has a natural crescendo built into each chorus, and the solos from Uehara, Sirota, Clarke, and Bruner all patiently build to their own crescendos, mirroring the tune.

Dayna Stephens' 2012 album Today is Tomorrow featured the saxophonist's arrangement of "Black Narcissus". Stephens was joined by Aaron Parks on piano, Julian Lage on guitar, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass, and Donald Edwards on drums. Lage's guitar chords open the tune before Stephens' sax takes the melody starting at about 0:15 in this light and airy version. Starting at about 1:00, Rodriguez's trumpet joins with a bit of countermelody and Edwards' drums come in. Then at 1:30, they move into a trumpet solo for Rodriguez over some minimal piano and guitar. Stephens takes a sax solo starting at about 2:50 over a similarly airy rhythm section. A guitar solo from Lage starts just after 4:00, with something of a Spanish feel in parts. Nice chords at 4:50 get a response from Edwards on the drums as this solo continues. At 5:15 the horns come back in with the "Black Narcissus" melody. At the end of the head here, they take one phrase from the head, alter it a bit and repeat it while Edwards takes a drum solo underneath. The playing on this version is solid throughout, with good solos from Rodriguez, Stephens, and Lage, but the highlight here is probably the tag on the end of this that they use as a platform for Edwards' drum solo. I'll also mention here that Stephens also led a quartet with Lage, Kitagawa, and Jaimeo Brown on drums that was recorded by NPR, with "Black Narcissus" starting at about 26:45.

Live in Kansas City, the 2015 release from Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle, featuring Moore on piano, Adam Schlozman on guitar, DeAndre Manning on bass, and Pat Adams on drums, opens with this group's version of "Black Narcissus". Moore introduces the tune on solo piano, hinting at the melody at first as he moves toward the head. The band joins him at about 0:50. Moore sets up a cool rhythm with his chords underneath the melody here, locked in with Adams' drums. At about 2:15, they come out of the head and move into a guitar solo for Schlozman. It's a fine solo that sticks fairly close to the melody over the enthusiastic rhythm section. At 4:40, the guitar solo comes to a close with a sustained note and they move into a piano solo for Moore. It's a somewhat more adventurous solo than the guitar solo that came before it, with Moore flying over his keyboard. The backing from Adams and Manning on drums and bass throughout is rock-solid, pushing this version forward in a far less mellow mood than Henderson's original but without sounding like they're forcing it. Just after 7:00 the piano solo comes to a close and they move into a bass solo for Manning. A very solid solo with nice comping from both Moore and Schlozman. At about 8:45 they move back to the "Black Narcissus" head and play through this much like they did in the opening, with Moore's rhythmic chords and the piano taking the melody. A very solid version of "Black Narcissus", with Moore's piano playing and the solid rhythmic backing throughout as the highlights.

"Black Narcissus" has also been covered by many others, including Christian McBride's big band and Conrad Herwig for those interested in even more versions of this tune. Starting with the masterful original composition in 1969 on Power to the People, "Black Narcissus" has largely been kept intact in these different cover versions even as the instrumentation changes. Stanley Clarke and Eddie Moore each have somewhat more bombastic versions of this tune than the Joe Henderson original, and Dayna Stephens, Stanley Clarke, and Helen Sung each took a piece of the composition and effectively looped it to create a vamp, but even when Helen Sung put the tune in 4/4 time, the melodic theme stayed front and center. Forty-five years after Power to the People, artists are still finding new breath to breathe into this tune. Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a little bit of time now and then.