John Handy In 5 Songs
January 11, 2017
By Rusty Aceves
Rising to prominence with jazz giant Charles Mingus to become a celebrated veteran of a six-decade career, saxophonist John Handy is an adventurous and influential artist who has called the Bay Area home since the early 1960s.
The performer, composer, bandleader, and educator has had a connection to SFJAZZ since the very beginning; he played at the first Jazz in the City Festival in 1983 with Mel Martin’s Bebop & Beyond, received the SFJAZZ Beacon Award in 2009, and came full-circle as a featured performer during the historic Opening Night concert at the SFJAZZ Center in January 2013.
On January 22, John Handy’s musical legacy of will be celebrated in a concert curated by SFJAZZ Collective saxophonist Miguel Zenón, featuring Joshua Redman, Terence Blanchard, Joe Lovano, Mary Stallings, Bill Frisell, Stefon Harris, Eric Harland, John Santos, the SFJAZZ Collective, and guest of honor John Handy himself.
In recognition of Handy’s lifetime of music, we look back at five recordings that helped define his sound and his impact on jazz:
1. Charles Mingus: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” from Mingus Ah Um (1959)
A tenor solo heard around the world. Handy made a memorable mark in jazz history with his playing on the original and definitive version of Mingus’ iconic tribute to saxophone giant Lester Young, who died two months before the recording sessions. After stating the melody in duo with Booker Ervin’s tenor, Handy’s wistful solo leads into a now-famous flutter tongue tremolo coordinated with the leader’s feathery bass tremolo. A jazz standard is born.
2. John Handy: “Spanish Lady” from Recorded Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival (1966)
Starting with a fleet, flamenco-inspired introduction from Handy’s alto, this furiously quick waltz was one of only two tracks on Handy’s landmark live album, clocking in at nearly 20 minutes. The track was nominated for a GRAMMY for jazz instrumental performance, and features Handy’s working band including violinist Michael White, guitarist Jerry Hahn, bassist Don Thompson, and drummer Terry Clarke.
3. John Handy: “Tales of Ole Miss (Anatomy of a Riot)” from New View! (1967)
An album the Penguin Guide to Jazz calls “Handy’s masterpiece,” New View! documents Handy’s hard-charging band at New York’s Village Gate, featuring vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and guitarist Pat Martino. Clocking in at over a half hour and running a stylistic gamut from funky soul to swing and free jazz, the closing track is a musical depiction of the struggle of civil rights figure James Meredith to gain entrance to the then-segregated University of Mississippi.
4. John Handy: “Ganesha’s Jubilee Dance” from Karuna Supreme (1976)
Originally released on the tiny MPS label, the trailblazing Karuna Supreme was one of the first and most successful fusions of jazz with Indian classical music, featuring Handy along side Bay Area sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, tabla giant Zakir Hussain, and tanpura player Yogish S. Sahota. Handy had studied with Ravi Shankar, and the collaboration between the saxophonist and the Indian musicians was a natural fit. As Handy told journalist Andrew Gilbert, “I felt as if we’d been playing with each other for years.”
5. John Handy: “Hard Work” from Hard Work (1976)
Handy’s follow-up to Karuna Supreme was, in keeping with his restless and creative instinct, a total departure. Embracing influences from soul and funk, the Impulse! album was a surprise hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard jazz chart and cracking the top 50 on the pop chart. The album was Handy’s first on a major label in eight years, and remains an influential album for DJs and hip hop artists as well as jazz fans.