On his most recent album, Scar (Mammoth, 2001), Joe Henry examines the lingering marks that love–or at least the quest for it–can leave. Though his lyrics are as elliptical as ever, his subjects are clear enough: people who can’t get enough from lovers and people who simply give too much. In “Struck” the narrator asks, “Should I love you more than I do? / Or pray to love you less?,” while in “Rough and Tumble” he laments, “You left me with everything / Knowing it would never be enough.” Such sentiments in the mouth of a lesser singer usually make me wish for a nice tight muzzle, but Henry rhapsodizes about heartache with extravagant style. Once overly influenced by Van Morrison, over the years he’s learned to craft a variety of moods, from twangy introspection to soul-tinged melancholy. (The latter is showcased to fine effect on Solomon Burke’s recent Don’t Give Up on Me, which Henry produced.) Here an empathetic cast of open-minded jazz musicians–including pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist Marc Ribot, and drummer Brian Blade–helps create some of his most ambitious and expressive settings yet. The most sublime moment comes on the album’s opener, “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” when Ornette Coleman’s alto saxophone leaps from the dirge like an uncaged bird, fluttering with increasing giddiness as it spirals upward. Produced by Henry and Craig Street, the music is avant-garde yet inviting–part Swordfishtrombones underwater glow, part Arto Lindsay lounge-lizard sleekness–and the instrumentalists are given room to assert their personalities without each song turning into a mere string of solos. Even the funky instrumental “Nico Lost One Small Buddha,” smothered in wah-wah, gets right to the point. For this one-off appearance Henry will play songs from throughout his career and preview material from his next album, due this fall from Anti. He’ll be leading an LA-based quartet that includes Chicago expatriate Chris Bruce on guitar, joined by stylistically peripatetic New York clarinetist Don Byron. Monday, May 12, 7:30 PM, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted; 312-335-1650.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Melanie Nissen.