Singer/songwriter Joe Henry opens a provocative chapter of his career with the help of an eclectic cast of musicians -- including such top jazz talents as the legendary Ornette Coleman -- on his new a

Singer/songwriter Joe Henry opens a provocative chapter of his career with the help of an eclectic cast of musicians -- including such top jazz talents as the legendary Ornette Coleman -- on his new album, "Scar," due May 15 from Mammoth.

Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, jazz drummer Brian Blade, bassist Me'Shell Ndegeocello, and guitarist Marc Ribot also contribute to the 10 evocative tracks on "Scar," which Henry says were recorded mostly live in the studio.

"The last two records I've made [1999's "Fuse" and 1996's "Trampoline"] have kind of been pieced together, a fragment at a time, over the course of a longer period," Henry says. "I was looking at going back in a room and recording with people."

To perform his new cycle of songs -- about, in Henry's words, "regret and having to come to terms with that part of you that is decidedly, unmanageably human" -- Mehldau brought in as co-producer an old friend, Craig Street, who has worked with Ndegeocello, k.d. lang, Chris Whitley, and Cassandra Wilson, among others.

Henry sought out Mehldau, one of the most lyrical keyboardists of his generation, to play on a single track. "He came in for that song, and I'd set a little bit of a trap for him," Henry recalls. "I had kind of hoped that if he came in and it went really well, he would stay. And, in fact, that's exactly what happened. Brad came for the session and really enjoyed himself and liked what was going on, and kept coming back for the next few days, as luck would have it."

"Same with Brian Blade. I had opened the door to have him come in and play on the one song, and then I felt, 'Jeez, if I have Brian Blade here, it seems foolish not to do more with him than that.'"

As he had with Mehldau, Henry reached out to free-jazz pioneer Coleman through the mail. He recalls, "I heard back -- 'No, thank you, Ornette doesn't do that kind of thing. He recognizes that you're a sincere, earnest musician, but he gets asked all the time, and he just doesn't do that.' I think a large part of that was that if he says yes to me and he says no to other people, it looks like he's passing judgment on the work, and he doesn't choose to do that."

Yet a week later, after Henry had begun to talk to other musicians about occupying the saxophone chair, Coleman reconsidered. Henry flew to New York for an orchestral session and an overdubbing date with the altoist.

"I spent a number of hours the day before with him at his apartment, talking about anything and everything, and found out we had a tremendous amount in common," says Henry. "He's got about as much use for the idea of what jazz is supposed to be as I do for the idea of what rock is supposed to be. We bonded on that almost instantly.

"For a while, I sang and he played. He said, 'You sit down. Don't worry about your time signature, don't worry about what key you're in. Just sing, and I'll play.' And we did that for about an hour. He sat me at the piano, and he gave me a course in harmolodics. I left thinking, 'You know, even if he doesn't show up at the studio tomorrow, that was a revelation to me. "

Coleman's solo is a highlight of the opening track on "Scar," "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation."

Henry says of Coleman, "He put a lot of himself into it. He absolutely exceeded every expectation I had, on a purely musical level. To my ear, what he plays is the purest, most emotional blues I've ever heard in my life. It's absolutely emotional and completely to the point of the song."

Mammoth president Rob Seidenberg acknowledges that marketing an album as unusual as "Scar" is "very challenging... Historically, writers and the press have been fans of Joe and have been quite encouraging as he's basically, each time around, taken a different turn and experimented in other ways and worked with different collaborators and has come up with albums that really have incredibly strong personalities of their own. That's both the strength and the challenge. ["Scar"] has this incredible personality to it. It's quite a musical journey, but it's not one that can easily be encapsulated by 15-second sound bites or the like."

Advance copies of "Scar" were distributed a couple of months before the release date. Seidenberg says, "The people who get it first are people who are open-minded about music -- people that don't just like something because it's going to be selling 2 million albums or something like that."

Seidenberg says, "We're certainly going to do a lot on Web sites and offering downloads. I don't have all the specifics yet, but basically on all the top retail sites and all the portals, beginning in May, we're going to be downloading and streaming Joe Henry songs."

Some of the new material was performed by Henry and Mehldau at a one-time duo show in late March at Largo in Los Angeles. Henry will begin his campaign for the album with some select concert dates.

"We're going to do some special shows, particularly in major cities, particularly in New York and L.A., around the release of the album," Seidenberg says. "Whether it's [going to be] exactly the people on the record or not, we don't know yet, but certainly we'll be bringing in as many people from the record as we can."

Forthcoming TV appearances include June 27 a guest shot on "Late Show With David Letterman."

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