Personality

Houston Person Sticks to Your Ribs

One might argue, though not too strenuously, that three central tribes of tenor saxophonists emerged just after the war: those who played Lester Young hard, those who played him soft, and those who played Illinois Jacquet. All merged their primary influences with bebop's phrasing and shivered their timbres with leanings toward any number of other tenor saxophonists. Some even played Young hard andsoft, or Young andJacquet, who was himself obviously influenced by Young. Still, a distinction can be made, and part of it has to do with the fact that Young's disciples (and those of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster) grounded jazz's serious evolution, attracting serious listeners, serious critiquing, and serious pedagogy. Jacquet's brood, including the Lester-inspired Gene Ammons, led to that presumably middlebrow school of tenors who often affix themselves to organ trios, name tunes after soul food, put semi-naked women on album covers, tour chiefly in black 'hoods, and like—really like—dancers. They attract listeners who clap in time, critics or at least annotators who fetishize simplicity and are really DJs anyway, and no pedagogues at all.

Jacquet, it must be emphasized, was a rugged, often brilliantly imaginative musician, who, though he scored one of the early slam-dunk rhythm and blues landmarks, playing "Flying Home" with Lionel Hampton (a bandleader who felt as much at home with r&b as swing), never followed the other swing renegades—Louis Jordan, Earl Bostic, Bill Doggett —into the groves of commercial dance music. Those three were nondescript jazz players and great r&b players, whereas Jacquet could whittle any jazz virtuoso down to his own diminutive but muscular size. Yet he soloed with an aggressive, crowd-pleasing lucidity and excitement that Ammons advanced and helped pass on to tenors as varied as Arnett Cobb, Willis Jackson, Harold Ousley, King Curtis, Stanley Turrentine, and, of course, Houston Person, who, as Samuel G. Freedman wrote in a judicious Sunday Timespiece, works "a circuit ignored by or unknown to much of the jazz intelligentsia." Lash me, Daddy, eight to the bar.

After hearing an enlightening if interrupted Person set at the Jazz Standard in early May, I found myself re-evaluating my own prejudices. Mind you, I have always admired Houston Person for his huge tone, bluff humor, and pointed obbligato, and have seen him several times—but only with singers: Daryl Sherman once and Etta Jones the rest. Yet only in recent years, at their Vanguard gigs and through records, especially Jones's faultless 1997 My Buddy(HighNote), did the group they co-led from 1973 until her death last year really reach me. If I paid her any mind before the early '90s, it was as one of several OK heirs to Dinah Washington's crown. My subsequent raves, which were of the most-underrated-singer-alive sort, the best-by-comparison sort ("the disparity between the attention given blond youth and brunette maturity . . . "), and the they-are-a-New York-institution sort, were all Johnny-come-lately blurbs, holding actions while I tried to get a better fix on her and the band.

I'd invariably leave the Vanguard feeling good, but with a literary shortfall in puzzling out an effect that recapitulated all those liner-note clichés: simple, basic, direct, home cooking. Jones modified Dinah's defiant, trenchant attack, making it drier, in the sense of grainier mid-range and martini acerbity, with a combination of the ripening that was denied Dinah, coquettishly cracked high notes, and a contagiously poised comfort zone that was unmistakably boosted by Person's chivalrous obbligato and quilt-heavy solos. She and he invariably phrased on the beat and in pitch, swinging without effort and using only the notes they needed. They delivered a perhaps too tried if undeniably true repertory of blues and ballads and blue-ballads (she had sung with Buddy Johnson at 15 and never let the flame go out) with a slightly mocking infallibility, leaving nothing for me to say except amen and see you next time.

So I had never really taken the measure of Person, who, at 67, now tours with a quartet: Soul tenor is soul tenor, and I am the kind of fan who complains that jazz isn't more popular but has never much liked what passes for popular jazz. I attended his opening night at the Jazz Standard mostly out of curiosity, but midway through his opener, a Wild Bill Davis tune (Person has a large repertory of pieces by jazz composers, many of them rarely performed), his easy unruffled gait, whimsical insertions of "As Time Goes By" and other songs, fat mid-register tone and equally hefty flaring high notes, not to mention an efficient rhythm section led by pianist Stan Hope, who looked as though he was having the time of his life, transformed a high-tech club into the kind of room that's supposed to be Person's bread and butter—a neighborhood bar, with barbecue no less. I recalled sneering at music like this in the '60s (Person had a hit at the time, Goodness!, not one of his best), and (warning: food metaphor in progress), now scarfing it up and wishing everyone could share the dish, felt like the guest who arrives at a party when everyone else is leaving.

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'."

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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