Released in 1974, The Elements is the 16th album from tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. This four-track album features four extended tracks; each is an improvisational exploration/meditation on one the elements. Though much of Henderson’s work had been well within the relatively conservative parameters of hard- and post-bop, The Elements is a conscious and largely successful attempt to venture beyond convention.
“Fire” begins with several minutes of hypnotic rhythm section work; the track eventually flowers into something more exploratory, first with a violin solo from Michael White and then Alice Coltrane playing a harp in a manner that makes it sound more like a kalimba. It’s only when she does a glissando that the instrument is recognizable for what it is. They rhythm section (bassist Charlie Haden and Leon “Ndugu” Chancler) remains steady throughout, though via modern recording techniques they’re brought forward and faded deeper into the mix at various points. In a slight bow to convention, “Fire” restates its head near the end of its eleven-plus minutes.
“Air” has a completely different character. Lacking the insistent groove of “Fire,” it begins with sax and bass both seemingly vamping, with what sound like random bits of percussion splashed about. Henderson wails on his saxophone, and Coltrane enters, playing dramatic figures on piano. After five minutes or so, the entire performance is faded out, replaced in the sonic space by what sounds like a wholly new piece. and a different song. But this second “song” has a similarly unfocused character, one that has the feel of musicians preparing to play a piece together but never actually quite getting around to doing so. Alice Coltrane’s piano improvisations form the centerpiece of the second half of “Air,” joined now and then by Henderson’s sax and Haden’s upright bass work. White shows up on violin near the end of the piece.
The Eastern flavors of tambura and harmonium (played by Coltrane) open “Water.” While Haden lays down a static bass line, Henderson overdubs multiple sax parts, some of which employ heavy amounts of reverb. Unlike the previous tracks, “Water” is a Henderson solo spotlight, with none of the other players stepping forward. Near the track’s end he plays a few relatively conventional melodies, but for most of the track’s run time, he seems more intent on improvising.
At over 13 minutes, “Earth” is the longest track on The Elements. The track combines African percussion and a smoky, slightly sinister and funky beat. That backdrop provides a musical canvas upon which Henderson paints with his tenor saxophone. He plays smoky, soulful lines, again making extensive use of overdubbing; various sax lines intertwine throughout the piece. Sometimes the result is jarringly atonal, but more often it comes together seamlessly. Just over four and a half minutes in, all of the players save Haden are faded out of the mix. After a full minute of soloing, the bassist is joined by subtle bits of Indian instrumentation. Coltrane adds harp, and while the rhythm section continues to lay out, the players set up a mysterious sonic landscape. Percussionist Kenneth Nash recites lyrics that ruminate on the concept of time. The narration may remind some listeners of Rick Holmes’ work on Nat Adderley’s Soul Zodiac. The track’s final moments are built upon a slow, hypnotic rhythmic pattern, with layers of saxophone, harmonium and violin all competing for the sonic space.
After The Elements, Henderson would go on to make more than a dozen albums, switching from Milestone to Red and eventually Verve. His exploratory nature would continue after The Elements, but he never again would work with that album’s particular set of musicians.
Jazz Dispensary’s 2017 reissue of The Elements recreates the original, upgrading to 180-gram vinyl and a sturdier color sleeve.