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Isotope: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Like Stanley Cowell, Joe Henderson is a fantastic musician who is somewhat overshadowed by his peers. The giants of saxophone - Coltrane, Rollins, Shorter - are rightly considered masters of their instrument, but Henderson has led or been involved in an amazing number of classic albums over the course of his career. He played as a sideman on Horace Silver’s Song For My Father, Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner and Fat Albert Rotunda, Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay and Straight Life, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, and Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, to name just a few. Holy cow. I’ll look at a Joe Henderson composition here, "Isotope".

"Isotope" first showed up in 1964 on an album led by Henderson, Inner Urge. Henderson, on sax, was joined by McCoy Tyner on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. The tune starts with a very Monk-ish figure from Henderson’s sax, complemented by Tyner’s piano line and backed by Cranshaw and Jones. Just after 0:30, after playing through the head, Henderson takes a sax solo. This section retains something of the Monk-ish feel, with Tyner’s stabbing piano chords sounding perhaps a bit less distinctively like McCoy Tyner than on many other recordings where just a few notes clue you in to the pianist. Henderson’s solo is a great lyrical solo with some interesting intervals around 2:00 or so, among other places in here. At about 4:20, Henderson hands over the reins to Tyner for a piano solo. Here, this sounds more distinctively like Tyner as he takes a great solo with swirling right hand runs over Elvin Jones’ swinging drums and Cranshaw’s great bass accompaniment. What a run at around 6:00… At about 6:50, Henderson’s sax returns for a section that includes some open drum breaks for Jones. This section continues until about 8:45 when the head returns. The quartet plays through the head here much the same way as in the opening of the tune, with Henderson and Tyner playing the theme in unison over Cranshaw and Jones’ drum and bass foundation. A great tune from Joe Henderson, with great solos from Henderson, Tyner, and Jones in its first incarnation on Inner Urge.

Henderson continued to play "Isotope" through his career, and included it on a number of his albums including a great version on State of the Tenor, recorded in 1985 and released in 1986 two decades after its first appearance on Inner Urge. This version is a sax trio, with Henderson on sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Al Foster on drums. Henderson opens the tune solo at a faster tempo than the original version; he’s joined after a brief introduction statement by Carter and Foster. This quickly opens up to a sax solo after running through the tune’s head. Foster’s drums are at first fairly minimal, providing a steady pulse on the ride cymbal, but he interjects some more starting around 0:45 or so. Carter’s bass accompaniment is really great here, moving between a walking bassline and more minimal basslines. Henderson’s sax solo in this version is less Monk-influenced to my ears than on Inner Urge. Some really good stuff around 2:45 or so as Henderson is in the groove and Foster’s drums lock in nicely with the sax. Carter’s bass is rock-solid here, keeping time and giving the foundation for Henderson’s sax. At about 6:00, Henderson drops out and Carter’s bass takes the lead. Carter gets into a really nice groove and really plays with this, stretching out and compressing the time a little bit. At around 7:30, Henderson returns and, as on Inner Urge, they leave some openings for the drummer here at the end of the tune. Foster takes some fine drum breaks, then the head returns around 8:30. The drums move to half-time for parts of this, giving it an interesting push-pull feel. There’s an extended ending on this version after the trio plays through the head. While there are many great versions of "Isotope" from Joe Henderson, this version is particularly interesting because of the stripped-down band without a piano or guitar to play chords behind the lead. This trio handles the chordless format just fine, playing a great version of "Isotope." (There doesn’t seem to be any streaming audio of this version available on the internet that I’ve been able to locate… follow the link above to the album on itunes.)

While there are plenty of other great versions of "Isotope" from groups led by Joe Henderson, a number of other jazz artists have taken on this tune. The first version that I’ll look at is from Renee Rosnes’ Black Narcissus. This album, with Rosnes on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums, is a celebration of Joe Henderson’s work. Rosnes spent a number of years playing with Henderson, and was kind enough to send the audio from this unfortunately difficult-to-find album along with a photo of her with Joe Henderson in 1987 (up at the top of this column). This version starts out with a great opening from Washington and Nash, letting you know that something special is coming. Rosnes joins shortly to play through the tune’s head while this great drum and bass combo continues behind her. At about 0:40, Rosnes moves into a piano solo and I can’t get enough of these drums and this bass... Perfect! Rosnes starts a nice, relaxed solo, building from a few notes into a great improvised composition. Some really cool rhythmic and melodic things happening around 1:30 here… At about 2:30 there’s a cool little breakdown as Rosnes’ solo continues, bringing things down to a bass solo from Washington starting around 2:50. He gets a huge tone out of his bass and plays a nice solo that touches on the "Isotope" melody while holding down the low-end. Nash’s cymbals are the perfect counterpoint to Washington’s bass solo here, and Rosnes adds some nice piano comping as well. At about 4:25, they return to the "Isotope" head and play through this to the end, finishing up with a deep piano note from Rosnes. Phew! Great playing from everyone on this version of "Isotope" from the Renee Rosnes trio.

Mike Moreno’s 2008 album Third Wish, with Moreno on guitar, Kevin Hays on piano, Doug Weiss on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums also included a version of "Isotope." On this version, Moreno’s guitar and Hays’ piano play the tune’s head in unison, and Scott’s drums play some nice tricks with the time (check out his cymbals from about 0:17 to 0:22, locked in with Weiss’ bass). At about 0:30 or so, the tune opens up to a guitar solo from Moreno. Hays lays out for the start of Moreno’s solo, but Scott and Weiss give Moreno plenty to work with. At about 1:35, Hays’ piano re-joins as Moreno’s fluid solo continues… very strong rhythm section backing here as Moreno spirals up and down, with a great close to the solo from 2:20-2:45 or so, leading into a piano solo. The drums and bass move into a more standard swinging foundation for the opening of this piano solo. Hays’ style here is more jagged, very different from Moreno’s approach to the tune. Around 4:30, the piano solo comes to a close with some descending chords and the group moves into a spotlight for Scott’s drums with some nice piano chords to accompany as Scott and Weiss continue to treat the time as a very elastic thing. Fantastic stuff. The head returns around 5:20 or so, and they play it through to the end of this version. Strong playing from everyone, with an especially fluid and melodic guitar solo from Moreno and absolutely fantastic backing from Scott and Weiss, in lockstep with each other.

Isotope from Mike Moreno on Myspace.

Stanley Clarke’s 2009 album Jazz in the Garden, with Clarke on bass, Hiromi Uehara on piano, and Lenny White on drums, includes this group’s version of "Isotope". Clarke’s trio opens with Hiromi playing the "Isotope" head over a sort of stuttering rhythm. Hiromi adds some interesting harmony to the theme here as Clarke’s bass adds some very deep notes. At about 0:35, they move from the head into a bass solo from Clarke. Hiromi adds some interesting piano comping in between the bass phrases. Clarke’s bass solo is fantastic, melodic stuff. At about 2:05, Clarke ends his bass solo and starts up a walking bassline for Hiromi’s piano solo. This solo is built on great melodic lines punctuated by some dissonant chords in between these phrases. Those punctuation marks get less frequent as the solo continues, though she drops in a few dense chords around 3:15 or so. At about 3:40, she sets up an arpeggio with her right hand and gives her left hand a little solo space. Hiromi’s two hands re-join each other at about 4:00 or so. At 4:35, Hiromi’s solo finishes up, moving into a section that highlights Lenny White’s drums. He takes a brief unaccompanied solo, and then the trio returns to the "Isotope" head at 5:05. They play through this and bring the tune to a close. Very good playing all around, great soloing from Clarke and Hiromi in a somewhat unusual arrangement, with Clarke’s bass solo coming out of the head.

The next version of "Isotope" I’ll look at here is from BANN, consisting of Seamus Blake on sax, Oz Noy on guitar, Jay Anderson on bass, and Adam Nussbaum on drums. Their 2011 album As You Like closes with their version of "Isotope". This version starts with an interesting ambient loop and some distorted guitar from Noy before rock-style drums join. Overdriven sax and guitar then play the "Isotope" theme in unison, with Noy adding some more guitar effects after they play the melody line. At about 1:10, Blake takes a sax solo as Noy’s ambient effects continue in the background. Anderson and Nussbaum are really locked in together here - great drum and bass combination, and Blake puts together a strong sax solo. Starting around 2:20 or so, Noy starts some more traditional chord-based guitar comping, though still with a heavily effected guitar. At about 3:50, Blake brings his sax solo to a close, leading to some more ambience and into a guitar solo. This opens with something that sounds vaguely Beatles-ish, then gets into a spooky feel. Throughout, Anderson’s bass and Nussbaum’s drums hold this together. At about 5:15, Noy’s ambience coalesces into a more straight-ahead solo (though still with plenty of effects on the guitar tone) and Anderson and Nussbaum go right along with that. Around 6:30, the guitar solo ends and the group moves into a feature for Nussbaum’s drums. Anderson’s bass provides the steady pulse here, with some accompaniment from Noy’s guitar. At around 7:10 or so, the quartet returns to the "Isotope" head, again with the spacy electronics from Noy in between statements of the theme. They play through the head and end with a delayed guitar effect and a single ride cymbal. Interesting version of the tune, heavy on the guitar effects and influenced by both Jimi Hendrix and Joe Henderson.

Isotope from Seamus Blake on Myspace.

George Cables’ 2014 release Icons and Influences, featuring Cables on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums, included his version of "Isotope." This piano trio version starts with a quick drumroll, then Cables jumps in to play the head over swinging drums from Lewis and great bass playing from Douglas. At about 0:15, Cables starts a piano solo with walking bass and more swinging drums. It’s a great solo - nothing groundbreaking perhaps, but really fantastic playing from the trio. Cool ascending line around 1:35 or so… Just after 3:00, Cables touches back on the "Isotope" theme, then shortly afterward ends his piano solo. A section with some open drum breaks for Lewis follows. The drum breaks here are longer than on some of the versions above. At about 4:45, Cables’ piano re-enters with the "Isotope" theme. The trio plays through the head and then bring it to a close. Great, swinging stuff - really strong playing as all three members of the trio settle into a groove and play some great piano trio blues.

Fifty years after "Isotope" first appeared on Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge, the tune has continued to inspire jazz musicians, evolving first in Henderson’s hands for multiple decades and since then in the hands of artists like Renee Rosnes, Mike Moreno, Seamus Blake, Stanley Clarke, and George Cables, among others. Its catchy melody has been a springboard for some inspired improvisations from lots of different musicians. Where will this tune go next? Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.