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Jazz It Up

Ballroom jazz -- now there's a concept that only took 30 years to get down on tape. In 1966, Joe Henderson, already a veteran bandleader, composer and master blaster of the tenor saxophone, began gathering some of the cream of the New York jazz scene to experiment with jazz in a big band setting. This was hardly a new concept -- much of the popular music of the '20s and the '30s had been jazzy big bands -- but it had been a while since anyone had dusted it off and run it up the flagpole, and Henderson, Chick Corea, Pepper Adams, Joe Chambers and dozens of other jazz greats wailed and bopped from uptown to downtown for years before moving on to other projects. Henderson played with Blood, Sweat and Tears for a bit, recorded a pair of Grammy-winning tribute albums (Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn and So Near, So Far in memory of Miles Davis), gave a lot of music lessons (he still teaches at a state college near his California home) and finally set the jazz world abuzz with the recent release of the four-years-in-the-making Big Band. This ain't no ethereal space music; it's a jazz album with 12 saxes, 11 trumpets and eight trombones punching and kicking in step with the energy of a runaway train on a downhill slope.

Alas, the full studio revue won't be coming to Houston as part of the Verve JazzFest, but this still promises to be one of the more memorable jazz road shows to pass through town. Joining Henderson's touring trio will be the Charlie Haden Quartet and the Kansas City All-Stars, whose soundtrack to Robert Altman's Kansas City drew almost as much attention as the movie itself. Since Haden and many of the All-Stars appear on Big Band, I'm betting on a big band closing set that will raise blisters on Rockefeller's marble.

Like countless other musicians who were already pretty damn good when, as the song goes, their number came up and they were blowing reveille, the Army proved a huge influence on Henderson in 1960. There's nothing like a gruff old sergeant with a degree in music theory who explains that you either practice until you're good enough for the Army Band or you'll be transferred to the infantry to inspire dedication in a young saxman. Henderson, of course, made the Army Band and spent a couple of years playing for Uncle Sam during the day and for fun at night.

After being discharged, Henderson found his way to New York, cut some discs for Blue Note with the likes of Kenny Dorham and Grant Green and generally laid the foundations for his career in jazz. It's been a good career, according to Henderson, who personifies the stereotypic laid-back jazzman. Looking back on a recent string of best-selling, Grammy-winning releases and the enthusiastic reaction to Big Band, Henderson muses, "I've done pretty good over the last five and a half, six years, but [laughing] I don't know if this is successful. This is just what I do. I mean, once you take care of the basics -- nutritional needs, affection and shelter -- all you really need is music and books to take care of your intellectual needs."

Thank goodness Henderson isn't nearly that mellow when he lifts his horn to his lips.

-- Jim Sherman

The Verve JazzFest begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 14, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $30 to $65. For info, call 869-TICS.

Barton and Sweeney -- This acoustic-guitar-toting Oklahoma duo proves -- quite eloquently, at times -- that folk music doesn't have to be simple to be affecting. In fact, it can be downright sophisticated, complex and full of itself and still strike a resonant emotional chord. George Barton and Mark Sweeney have mastered the art of playing it smart without succumbing to the excesses of self-importance, and they do it with a vivid storytelling sense, intricate picking, wistful harmonies, a dash of clever irony and more than a little road-born sweat. Barton and Sweeney have seen their audience grow most significantly in Colorado and the Midwest, where they're perhaps best known for "If You Drink You Die," a cheeky, politically correct worrywart's lament neatly tied to a catchy roots-rock chorus. The pair released a CD, River Red, back in 1995, but it bears only a hint of the earthy charisma and fat sound these guys dish out on-stage. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, January 9. Tickets are $5. 528-2929. (Hobart Rowland)

Koko Taylor -- Koko Taylor may not be the world's only Queen of the Blues, but her rivals have little more than a square block or two of territory to rule. The rest is Taylor's. It's not just the 30 years of hard labor in the trenches, her mountain of classic recordings, her amazing recovery from a serious car wreck, her Grammys, Handys and other accolades or even her prodigious talent that merit Koko the crown. It's all of those plus her longevity and success at reaching the pinnacle of the male-dominated blues world. At times soulful or even soft, Taylor's singing is never more than one note from the trademark growl/shout that leaves no doubt she's not to be messed with. Whether reinventing blues anthems (Koko-ized versions of "Hound Dog" and "Born Under a Bad Sign"), belting out one of the many songs that have been written especially for her or churning through an original, Taylor never relaxes long enough for the palace guard to even contemplate a revolt. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 9 p.m. Saturday, January 11. Tickets are $18 to $32. 869-TICS. (Bob Burtman

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