Houston Person Sticks to Your Ribs

He then went almost without pause into "Tenderly," a tune that usually makes me blanch (Sarah Vaughan aside), and revived its jukebox glory with streaming blues locutions and a tone big enough to move into come winter; Hope fed him plush, provoking chords while bassist Nat Reeves held the center and drummer Chip White snapped his brushes. Midway, the fire alarm went off—a mix of siren blasts and flashing lights, kind of like the Fillmore. Person played through it, finishing with a short, sweet cadenza and joking about the interruption. But the alarm tripped again during Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird," this time for a long siege, as club personnel walked from table to table, assuring everyone that there was no fire, buying a round of drinks for the house, and finally calling for an intermission until the problem was solved. The brief break seemed to energize Person, who returned with a roaring "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" that displayed Websterish economy and his own fuzzless timbre. Hope accounts for much of the group's familial pleasure; he plays spare, swinging solos that rarely surprise but never bore—affirming the idea of party jazz. Person underscored the feeling of jukebox reverie with "Where Is Love" from Oliver!, constructing a solo with high sighing notes, very different from his mid- and bottom range.

The peak of the set, following a fast "Secret Love," was a slow and squally "Since I Fell for You," Buddy Johnson's signature tune. Riding the backbeat with every kind of blues lick and kicking up a storm in the upper register, he raged and caressed, then settled into a quick coda and out. And so it went, ending with a breakneck blues parsed by fastidious cymbal-slashing—Chip White is a drummer to watch—a chorus of "Happy Birthday" to his doctor, and Mother's Day wishes.

Converted, I dug out half a dozen long-unplayed Houston Person albums (and was chagrined to discover that, besides the Etta Jones discs, only one was recent), and found confirmation for my new religion and old skepticism, sometimes on the same album, for example Wildflower. "Preachin' and Teachin' " is mostly rhythm and cliché, the backbeat as relentless as disco, and the tag-and-fade end is deadly conventional. But the remarkable thing about Person at his best is the absence of cliché, as on the introspective "Dameronia." "My Romance" surprises: Person plays a handsome but hardly transformative head, and then, when you expect him to pass the piece to another player, embarks on an improv that makes the song his own, double-timing to pass the time but generally offering something much better—a diligent sense of melodic buildup and drama. The much neglected trumpeter Bill Hardman is also showcased, turning in concise, orderly inventions on "Dameronia," which he all but steals, and "Ain't Misbehavin'."

Huge tone, bluff humor, pointed obbligato—and more
photo: Courtesy High Note Records
Huge tone, bluff humor, pointed obbligato—and more

Person's several albums with pianist Cedar Walton are particularly good. He is inspired throughout The Big Horn, as are Walton (notably on "This Love of Mine," though "La Marseillaise" was evidently on his mind because he quotes it here and on "The More I See You," catching himself just as it almost slips in a third time), bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Grady Tate; Buddy Caldwell's congas do no damage. You expect Person to be in clover on "Gee, Baby Ain't I Good to You," yet he and the group are no less compelling on "Memories of You"—Walton's every note is articulated and given full weight (he doesn't appear to favor some fingers over others), and provides an attentive, rich, empathic accompaniment. "I Concentrate on You," despite yet another tag-and-fade, is a capacious performance, with a vividly alert Tate. The Walton-Williams teamwork is exemplified here: Williams responds to him with diverse textural ideas, including slides and double-stops, and Walton returns the favor, stabilizing the bass solo with a canny riff. Person lucidly rides the beat with figures you think you've heard but haven't. These are not recycled licks or clichés; they simply seem familiar, like family. Both of these albums were recorded in the '70s, yet, gray hair aside, Person is unchanged, an unmoved mover of certain jazz essentials.

Last week in my column on Verve's LP Reproduction series, I complained of a lack of discographical information. Ken Drucker, the series producer, tells me that in stores, each CD is packaged in a "spine wrap" that has all the pertinent information, much of it specifically researched for this project. I apologize for the error.

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