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Jazz singer Bruce Henry thrives on songs with a message

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Bruce Henry
Jazz singer Bruce Henry
Photo by Jennifer Bong, courtesy Bruce Henry

When jazz singer Bruce Henry puts together a set list, he doesn't follow a concept or theme.

From Horace Silver's "All" and Duke Ellington's "In the Beginning God" to McCoy Tyner's "Fly With The Wind" for which Henry wrote lyrics, the 59-year-old singer invariably will choose songs that are faithful to his dream of a better world.

"There is something that I notice, whether it's conscious or unconscious," Henry said. "I even made this observation once on stage to my audience. Like wow. I didn't even realize it when I put the set together. All of these songs are message songs."

His propensity for picking songs with lyrics that might inspire people is reflected on his latest recording, "Live and Natural," on which he is backed by some of the best improvisers in the Twin Cities.

"If they move me then I have a potential of moving and connecting with the audiences," said Henry, who lives in Chicago but maintains a strong presence in Minnesota, where he lived for years. "Whatever that message is for me. It's not religious. But it's a sense of human empowerment. And then there's also that connection I have to honoring my culture."

Most of the music on "Live and Natural" was recorded in 2005 at the Dakota Jazz Club. The CD also includes two songs recorded in 1990 at Ruby's Cabaret and two songs recorded at McNally Smith Studios in 2008.

Henry's music is an extension of his work presenting the story of African-American music and culture in the Americas, a history of struggle often expressed through art.

Though that tendency is increasingly lost in commercial music, he is heartened by the artists he meets in Chicago and the Twin Cities who also try to infuse their art with social consciousness. His efforts to do so follow those of his earliest influences, from the classic jazz voices of half a century ago to gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland and soul singers from the 1960s.

A baritone whose three and a half octave range allows him to sing tenor, alto and falsetto, Henry can go from the style of Billy Eckstine to Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.

"My first jazz influences were people like Gil Scott Heron," he said. "I say a special notice to Leon Thomas. That's where I stole my yodeling from. Straight out of Leon Thomas' book. I loved him. And he also had a spiritual and a pan African perspective that comes through my music as well. And also Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone."

But as much as Henry enjoys songs about the presence of the divine in everyday life and calls for equality, he knows that audiences also want to be entertained with songs.

"When I put together shows, I actually have to consciously include like a romantic song," he said. "Not that I don't believe in love. But there's something I consciously have to do. [I say] OK Bruce, you've done three message songs in a row. Let's do 'Embraceable You.'"

"But those movements in me, at this point they're kind of second nature that I will be trying to choose songs that empower people with a message. I'm a child of the 60s and 70s. A hippy if you will."

In the 1980s and 90s, Henry made parallel recordings that reflected his grounding in jazz and rhythm and blues. His latest CD includes just one R&B tune, a stirring version of Sly Stone's "Thank You."

But although he has long had a foot in both styles, Henry said jazz is number one.

When he hears comments from someone claiming jazz is sleepy or no longer relevant, he sometimes has to walk away. If only they knew, he said, what it's like to play with the masterful musicians who back him on the recording, among them bassist Jay Young, guitarist Dean Magraw, drummer Kevin Washington and pianist Peter Schimke.

The creative fire of Twin Cities musicians, he said, runs deep.

"I've nicknamed my Minneapolis band wild horses run free," Henry said. "Because you know they all are strong leaders. They all are strong personality people. I hate the word dream team but they all could carry the ship by themselves. And I get to stand in front of them and help guide them in a direction."

If he finds himself having trouble winning a crowd, Henry remembers what Miles Davis told his band when a crowd was not ready for his experiments with electronic music: "Don't worry about them. Just play for us."

"If there are moments when ... I'm not connecting with the audience, then I go like, 'OK, try this first. Let me enjoy it. Let me enjoy it first. And then, let's enjoy each other on stage,' Henry said. "And if we are really enjoyed the music, they will be pulled in."

Bruce Henry will be performing Jan. 3 at at The Dakota in Minneapolis, 8 p.m.