(Ronnie Scott’s, 9th January. First night of two. Review by Chris Parker)
‘As full-bodied and comforting as home-baked apple pie’ is the late Richard Cook’s description of Houston Person‘s saxophone sound; a review of his latest album, So Nice (HighNote, 2011), compares it with ‘mom’s meatloaf’. Inasmuch as these similes attempt to convey the comforting, warm-hearted and effortlessly accomplished nature of the South Carolina-born tenorman’s art, they are spot-on, but they also point up a problem: like home cooking, Person’s musical confections can all too easily be taken for granted.
It was therefore extremely gratifying to witness the genuine affection and respect with which this performance was greeted by a full Ronnie Scott’s on this, the first of a two-night residency in which Person is backed by a sparky and responsive UK rhythm section: pianist James Pearson, bassist Sam Burgess, drummer Shaney Forbes.
Person, although his roots are in organ-centred R&B, is also a matchless interpreter of standards and jazz classics from both the swing and hard bop eras, so it was unsurprising to find him beginning his first set with Duke Ellington’s ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me’ and visiting the work of the likes of Horace Silver (‘Juicy Lucy’), Benny Carter (‘Only Trust Your Heart’) and Johnny Griffin (‘Sweet Sucker’) -– not to mention show tunes such as ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ and ‘The Sunny Side of the Street’ – thereafter.
Arguably more important than the matter, though, is the manner of his playing: to a bluesy integrity resulting from his immersion in music forever connected with Gene Ammons, Stanley Turrentine et al., Person has added a burnished sophistication, an assured elegance and poise that have rendered his recent HighNote discography an object lesson in unfussy, no-gimmicks music-making.
In addition to a velvety, intimate ballad technique (explained by his close attention to the meaning of his songs’ lyrics, exemplified here by his spoken introduction to the Leonard/Martin classic ‘Why Did I Choose You?’), Person also possesses an ability to imbue up-tempo material with an irresistible wailing intensity, so his crowd-pleasing bluesy numbers (in which Pearson in particular got the chance to show off his considerable chops) provide welcome variety to his judiciously balanced sets. Add to his musical prowess a genial stage presence and a ready wit, and you have that increasingly rare bird: a peerless musician who is also a thoroughly engaging entertainer.
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