Scott Henderson Trio at Ronnie Scott’s

The jazz-rock guitar virtuoso played one night at the Soho club with Romain Labaye on bass and Archibald Ligonniere on drums

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There was a queue down Frith St, reminding me of a time in the late 80s when Allan Holdsworth returned to play in London. Holdsworth’s self-doubting “I suck” refrain was invoked as point of comparison while Henderson observed that all the guitarists in the audience were probably noting his own mistakes. There may have been some irony or false modesty going on there, for Henderson is a renowned jazz-rock virtuoso, not to mention innovator of lines that only he can play.

The queue was occasioned by inter-set cleaning, possibly clinical, rather than over-subscription, but in any event the gig was a sellout, and there were surely numerous guitarists alongside the tourists and first-timers. The barman asked me if the club had changed in 40 years. I said hardly and most importantly had remained constant in terms of musical quality. When the serial venue rehabilitator Sally Greene took over the club in 2005 there was fear it might become something else but it has remained a stronghold for the top players in putatively mainstream jazz, still bringing in the best American names. Free improvisation is barely known, but the full-on assault of Henderson’s trio sometimes seemed only a sliver away from the maelstrom of, say, Peter Brötzmann. The style was different, of course – more funky, more bluesy – but the attack often approached the same intensity.

Proceedings began gently enough, with Henderson’s relatively quiet, brilliantly clean Strat-type sound, no distortion, sidling up to Miles Davis’s All Blues. By the end though he could joke: “Not many people know that All Blues was composed by Miles Davis and Ritchie Blackmore.” The volume and distortion had soon kicked in, and the tune received a reading that the post-70s Miles would surely have appreciated. The next night Robben Ford and Bill Evans did their “Blues, Miles and Beyond” gig at the club. Henderson never played with Miles but he would have been the perfect fit for the trumpeter’s 80s/90s bands alongside John Scofield and Mike Stern. He shares – with Scofield in particular – credit as one of a tiny handful of guitarists that took jazz-rock guitar beyond blues and pentatonic and incorporated the polytonal modalism pioneered and perfected by Hancock, Tyner, Shorter, Joe Henderson and others in the 1960s. That was first evident in the fresh, never before heard guitar lines (and sound) of Spears, the 1985 debut album by Henderson and bassist Gary Willis’s group Tribal Tech.

Henderson’s moved on from that complex Zappa plus Weather Report style into something still complex, still jazz-rock but inextricably woven with the (equally complex) Chicago blues mutation that he developed in the 90s, where the sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan met the harmony of, say, the Brecker Brothers – check the title track of the 1994 Dog Party. The blues band is still there in the hardware too, Henderson sticking to a single-coil Suhr Strat-style guitar, an instrument with a rawer demeanour than the relatively smooth humbucker-equipped superstrats he favoured in the 80s.

Next up was the title track of the 2015 Vibe Station, before a look forward with four numbers from the forthcoming album Carnival. The first, the title track, introduced a welcome sense of band interplay that wasn’t always evident in what inevitably, given the leader’s reputation, was always likely to be a frontman and rhythm gig. Henderson’s sidemen seem to change as often as he says his effects pedals do and on this gig it was the turn of Romain Labaye on bass and Archibald Ligonniere on drums. Despite the nominal spotlight on the leader, both had their solo spots. Labaye particularly stood out on Sky Coaster (or Sky Coiler – the final title, a term for “taking a dump on a plane”, yet to be decided) where he showed how Jaco Pastorius’s once unique, transformative style has now become the norm – if not been actually exceeded. He took the sixth number alone, which brought some welcome contour to the set, a moment to take breath as he used what sounded like chorus and volume swell to create an atmosphere that reminded of Jaco’s luminous Portrait Of Tracy or Continuum. The two other of the four new ones were Bilge Rat, in which heavy metal met a dub-reggae pocket, and Covid Vaccination, inspired by one of Henderson’s favourite bands, Tower Of Power. The encore was a blues.

Some (e.g, Wayne Shorter) have branded the more athletic incarnations of jazz-rock as “locker-room music” – stuff of macho, testerone-charged display, dominated by men. That’s actually a disservice to the many fine female exponents of the genre (e.g., Rachel, Z, the late lamented Susan Weinert, even Shorter’s one-time drummer Terri Lyne Carrington) but Henderson, punting CDs, closed with thanks to “the ladies who came out”, adding: “Normally when we play not only are there no ladies in the room, there are none in the malls for 10 miles around. But Valentine’s Day is always coming up. Buy her a Scott Henderson CD and you can be sure of some action tonight.” That followed an earlier observation that money from CD sales, no, it wasn’t going to pay for his daughter’s education but to buy hookers. The unrepentant, unreconstructed rugged jazz-rock individual still strides the boards, albeit with, surely, a satirical touch.

Scott Henderson Trio at Ronnie Scott’s, second house, 9 March 2022.