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REVIEW: Houston Person at Upstairs Club in Montreal (2018 Montreal Jazz Festival)

Houston Person at Upstairs

Emmet Cohen Trio with Houston Person
(Upstairs Jazz Club Montreal. 30 June 2018. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The small basement jazz club Upstairs, equipped with a very well-kept and impeccably tuned Steinway piano, is one of the year-round cornerstones of the Montreal jazz scene. The club always has a strong programme during the jazz festival, the food is excellent; in other words, it is not any kind of  hardship to make an annual pilgrimage to McKay Street. Last year I heard George Cables, and in the past have enjoyed Russell Malone and Jimmy Cobb. A store of happy memories is growing…

This year the club has fine New York/New Jersey-based pianist Emmet Cohen in residence. I had found his playing seriously impressive last year as part of an occasional project run by Christian McBride called Tipp City Trio, a hard-swinging homage to the classic Ray Brown trios with guitar (reviewed). As is the way at this festival, artists are welcomed back and given more to do. This year Cohen has a trio in town and there are guests too: two nights with Benny Golson, young singer Veronica Swift, and last night saxophonist Houston Person.

I found a sad thought unavoidable: how the cohort of strong mainstream tenor saxophonists who play in the idiom of Houston Person has dwindled. All those players, with their habits learned over decades of how to construct a long solo out of simple materials – Johnny Griffin, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Don Byas, or Buddy Tate – they’ve all gone. Houston Person is now one of a handful. He has a powerful sound which instantly grabs the attention, so the small club setting was ideal. And it doesn’t take much for him to lure in the listener. The first two notes of Sonny, or the repeated notes of Lester Leaps In were all that was needed to start to tell a story. Maybe that is his skill above all, to say a lot without having to play many notes.

Houston Person also is a creature of a time and a place. It was curious to hear Marvin Hamlisch’s early ’70s tune The Way We Were given the ballad treatment complete with a luxuriant and beautifully unfolding cadenza. When did that last happen?

If Houston Person can recreate an era with just one whispered phrase, Emmet Cohen’s trio  with Evan Sherman on drums and Russell Hall on bass, both of whom have been in the Juilliard/ Wynton orbit, have the versatility to time-travel and locate themselves in more or less any decade at will. Jamaican-born Hall has perfected the classic Slam Stewart technique of singing along to his solo – and does it forcefully, loudly attention-grabbingly. Sherman is a skilled, schooled, careful virtuoso drummer. The three played an intricate Fats Waller collection – more of a composed or at least cued suite than a medley – with panache. The agility and remarkably nonchalant ease of Cohen’s fast-flying “stride” left hand was an impressive feature.

There was a mini-leitmotif to the set of playing tunes at much faster tempi than normal. My Funny Valentine had an improbably jaunty Jersey bounce about it, and for the encore, Veronica Swift joined the band as vocalist and highly decisive bandleader for You Don’t Know What Love Is at what was probably an illegal speed. Houston Person joined in a gamely manner, but had the wry, bemused smile of a traffic cop who might be asking for driving licences at any moment.

It was a joy to hear this warm-hearted, generous-toned saxophonist in action.

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