Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus: Analysis of Jazz Covers

Excerpt of Joe Hendeson's Black Narcissus lead sheet

Trace the fascinating evolution of Joe Henderson‘s “Black Narcissus” across the landscape of jazz history.

We’ll dissect how masters like Stanley Clarke, Renee Rosnes, Dayna Stephens, Helen Sung, and Kevin Hays infuse the composition with their personal flair.

Join us on a journey spanning diverse eras and styles, where each cover becomes a new chapter in the continuing story of this beloved jazz standard.

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Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus”, Power to the People (1969)

Joe Henderson’s 1969 album Power to the People showcased a stellar lineup: Herbie Hancock‘s masterful keys, Ron Carter‘s grounding bass, and Jack DeJohnette‘s nuanced drumming. They graced the album with a sublime rendition of “Black Narcissus,” a composition where Henderson’s haunting melody soars effortlessly over Hancock’s atmospheric Rhodes chords and Carter’s steady bassline.

The piece unfolds gently, DeJohnette’s delicate touch underscoring the opening melodies. As the first chorus ends, his presence grows, then recedes, creating a captivating ebb and flow. Henderson’s saxophone solo emerges, a poignant voice against the Rhodes’ gentle backdrop. Carter’s bass weaves in and out, subtly shifting beneath the solo. Henderson’s phrasing shines, particularly with a captivating line that leaves the listener breathless.

Hancock’s Rhodes solo takes center stage, ethereal and shimmering with Carter’s bass adding a touch of warmth, especially with his playful upward flourishes. The band returns to the familiar theme, a beautifully rendered echo of the opening.

This version of “Black Narcissus” is a masterclass in restraint. Each musician shines, their individual contributions creating a mesmerizing whole. The power of silence is as evident as the notes themselves, a testament to the quartet’s exceptional skill. Henderson’s enduring melody shines through, laying the foundation for the remarkable interpretations of “Black Narcissus” that would follow.

Kevin Hays’ “Black Narcissus”, Seventh Sense (1994)

Kevin Hays‘ 1994 album Seventh Sense offered a fresh perspective on “Black Narcissus.” Joined by Seamus Blake‘s saxophone, Doug Weiss‘ bass, Steve Nelson‘s vibraphone, and Brian Blade‘s drums, Hays reimagined Henderson’s composition with a unique sonic palette.

The piece begins with the iconic three-note bassline shared by bass and piano, setting a contemplative mood. Piano and vibes intertwine to deliver the melody, Blade’s brushed drums and cymbals adding a delicate rhythmic pulse. Though faithful to Henderson’s original, the instrumentation imbues the piece with a distinct character.

The vibraphone takes the spotlight, Blade’s drumming subtly intensifying, while Hays’ piano comping weaves a rhythmic foundation. Nelson’s solo remains understated, gracefully embellishing the familiar melody.

Hays takes over, his piano solo unfolding against the backdrop of Blade’s subtle yet intricate drumming and Weiss’ unwavering bassline. Weiss subtly modifies the original motif, adding a touch of improvisation under Hays’ engaging, introspective solo. Meanwhile, Blade’s nuanced drumming propels the piece forward without overwhelming its mellow heart.

Returning to the head, piano and vibes once again intertwine in unison, echoing the opening. This rendition of “Black Narcissus” highlights the interplay between the musicians – Nelson and Hays deliver elegant melodic solos, while Blade’s masterful drumming provides the rhythmic heartbeat.

Helen Sung’s “Black Narcissus”, Helenistique (2006)

Helen Sung‘s 2006 album Helenistique presents a captivating reimagining of “Black Narcissus.” Joined by Derrick Hodge on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, Sung injects a fresh energy into the piece. Her arrangement shifts from Henderson’s waltz to a swinging 4/4 tempo, while Hodge’s bassline departs from the original, fundamentally altering the song’s atmosphere. Hodge accentuates the rhythmic shift, replacing Carter’s lingering notes with a driving pulse.

After stating the theme, Sung launches into a spirited piano solo, marked by playful descending lines. The trio’s interplay intensifies, departing from the mellow mood of Henderson’s version. Sung’s solo displays remarkable skill, complemented by Hodge’s propulsive walking bass and Nash’s dynamic drumming.

Hodge takes center stage with a melodic bass solo, creatively weaving the altered rhythm into his improvisation. Sung gracefully returns to the head, subtly embellishing the familiar melody. A dynamic four-chord progression signals Nash’s turn in the spotlight, showcasing his virtuosity in an extended drum solo that carries the piece to its thrilling conclusion.

Sung’s bold choices with time signature and bassline transform “Black Narcissus” into a vibrant and energetic experience.

Renee Rosnes’ “Black Narcissus”, Black Narcissus (2008)

Renee Rosnes‘ 2008 album Black Narcissus pays homage to Joe Henderson‘s artistry through a captivating piano trio setting. Joined by Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, Rosnes breathes new life into the composition.

The piece begins with an ethereal introduction, gradually easing into the familiar melody. Rosnes’ piano lines are exquisitely articulated, complemented by Washington’s rich bass tones. Nash’s drumming echoes the nuanced style of DeJohnette and Blade, yet with a brighter touch.

Rosnes’ piano solo unfolds with a delightful swing, revealing her improvisational prowess. The trio locks into a mesmerizing mellow groove, showcasing an exceptional interplay between the musicians. Rosnes’ exploration of the “Black Narcissus” melody and harmony adds layers of depth and complexity to her solo. The trio returns to the head, delivering a beautifully rendered final statement of the theme.

This rendition of “Black Narcissus” stands out for its dynamic swing, Rosnes’ masterful soloing, and the undeniable chemistry between the three musicians.

Stanley Clarke Band feat. Hiromi’s “Black Narcissus”, Live Concert at the Heineken Jazzaldia (2010) [47:00 mark]

Stanley Clarke‘s band, featuring Hiromi Uehara, Ruslan Sirota on keyboards, and Ron Bruner on drums, delivered a captivating extended rendition of “Black Narcissus” at the 2010 Heineken Jazz Festival (47-minute mark). Their performance unfolds with a unique sonic exploration: Uehara plucks the piano strings, Sirota adds a Rhodes-like texture, and Clarke emphasizes the iconic bassline.

The band transitions into the main melody with Uehara and Sirota in unison, followed by a subtly dissonant passage from Uehara that adds a touch of intrigue. Her subsequent piano solo demonstrates her mastery of dynamics and space. Clarke’s powerful bass and Bruner’s swinging drums propel her improvisation forward. A series of piano trills hint at a conclusion, only to give way to further exploration.

Sirota takes the spotlight with a minimalist keyboard solo, initially cushioned by gentle chords. A rhythmic interplay between Sirota and Clarke unfolds, with Sirota’s solo gaining momentum while Clarke anchors the groove. The solo reaches a thrilling climax, sustained with infectious energy.

After Sirota’s solo, the band breaks down the intensity. Clarke’s minimalist bassline and Bruner’s understated drumming lay the groundwork for a captivating bass feature. Sirota provides playful accompaniment, allowing Clarke’s solo to breathe and build momentum. Like his bandmates, Clarke emphasizes space, interspersed with driving bass lines and rhythmic bursts.

Bruner takes over with a dynamic drum solo over Sirota’s atmospheric chords. His initial use of brushes transitions to sticks as the solo intensifies. While venturing into bold territory, Bruner skillfully weaves “Black Narcissus” back into the heart of his improvisation. The band rejoins, revisiting the head with renewed vigor.

This extended performance showcases exceptional musicianship. Mirroring the composition’s inherent crescendo, solos from Uehara, Sirota, Clarke, and Bruner build with patience and artistry, creating a captivating musical journey.

Dayna Stephens’ “Black Narcissus”, Today is Tomorrow (2012)

Dayna Stephens‘ 2012 album Today is Tomorrow offers a delicate and spacious reimagining of “Black Narcissus.” Joined by Aaron Parks (piano), Julian Lage (guitar), Michael Rodriguez (trumpet), Kiyoshi Kitagawa (bass), and Donald Edwards (drums), Stephens delivers a captivating arrangement.

The piece opens with Lage’s gentle guitar chords, setting an ethereal tone before Stephens’ saxophone carries the melody with an airy lightness. Rodriguez’s trumpet enters with a subtle countermelody, while Edwards’ drumming adds a delicate pulse. Rodriguez then takes center stage with a trumpet solo, his phrasing beautifully complemented by the minimal accompaniment.

Stephens follows with a saxophone solo, maintaining the airy atmosphere. Lage’s subsequent guitar solo evokes a touch of Spanish flair, punctuated by vibrant chords and Edwards’ responsive drumming. The horns gracefully return to the “Black Narcissus” melody, leading into a unique twist: a repeated, altered phrase from the head serves as a springboard for Edwards’ dynamic drum solo.

This rendition showcases excellent soloing from Rodriguez, Stephens, and Lage, yet the standout element is the innovative ending that spotlights Edwards’ artistry.

Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle’s “Black Narcissus”, Live in Kansas City (2015)

Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle kick off their 2015 album Live in Kansas City with a spirited take on “Black Narcissus.” Featuring Moore on piano, Adam Schlozman on guitar, DeAndre Manning on bass, and Pat Adams on drums, this rendition re-energizes Henderson’s classic.

Moore opens with a playful solo piano introduction, teasing the melody before the full band joins him. He establishes a driving rhythmic foundation with his chords, intertwining perfectly with Adams’ drumming. Schlozman takes the first solo, delivering a melodic exploration that stays true to the theme while showcasing the group’s upbeat energy.

Moore follows with a more adventurous piano solo, his fingers dancing across the keyboard. Adams and Manning provide a rock-solid rhythmic pulse, propelling the solo forward while maintaining a sense of balance rather than overpowering the piece. Manning then steps into the spotlight with a captivating bass solo, supported by tasteful accompaniment from Moore and Schlozman.

The band returns to the “Black Narcissus” head, mirroring the opening’s intensity with Moore’s rhythmic chords and his melodic lead. This rendition stands out for Moore’s dynamic piano playing and the band’s cohesive rhythmic drive, transforming “Black Narcissus” into a vibrant and exhilarating experience.


While instrumentation shifts across these covers, the core melody crafted by Joe Henderson in his 1969 masterpiece remains a powerful anchor.

Though versions by Stanley Clarke and Eddie Moore inject a touch of bombast, and artists like Dayna Stephens and Helen Sung creatively use looping techniques, the thematic heart of “Black Narcissus” remains vibrant. Even with Sung’s bold shift to 4/4 time, the melody continues to captivate.

The fact that artists, over four decades later, still find inspiration in “Black Narcissus” is a testament to its timeless quality. With each new interpretation, the composition gains another layer of richness. So keep listening – the journey of “Black Narcissus” is far from over.

Read Other Articles in Our ‘Best Song Covers’ Series!


What does Black Narcissus mean?

Black Narcissus was the title of English writer Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel in reference to the Narcisse Noir perfume from French perfume house Parfums Caron. The book was adapted into a film in 1947 as well as a British TV drama series for BBC One in 2020. It was also the name of a 1977 album by saxophonist Joe Henderson as well as its title track.

Who wrote Black Narcissus?

The book Black Narcissus was written in 1939 by English writer Rumer Godden, while the jazz composition was written by saxophonist Joe Henderson in 1977.