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One of the great sidemen is back at the front. Midway through the opening night of a four-date residency at the venerable Soho jazz club, he’s singing and playing guitar. This isn’t how we usually imagine Booker T Jones – who, as Booker T & the MG’s on the indelibly groovy instrumental “Green Onions”, introduced pop to the Hammond B-3 organ some 50 years ago. But with Grammys for both his albums before his current release, this month’s Sound the Alarm, Booker T likes to keep us on our toes.
Proudly integrated in a segregated era – half black, half white – Booker T & the MG’s were the house band of the storied Memphis labels Stax and Volt. Booker T, now 68, was brought up with a wide musical hinterland, which gives his tunes subtlety as well as their satisfying stomp.
After a suitably funky overture here – each terse blast on the Hammond the sonic equivalent of a raised eyebrow asking, “How cool are you?” – the 1971 track “Melting Pot” seemed to turn imaginary cop-show incidentals into a Beale Street sonata, Vernon Black’s guitar-playing intricate and dreamy.
The set took off with “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the rhythmic oomph of Darian Gray (drums) and Melvin Brannon Jr (bass) delivered with casually intense authority. Then it was “just a little B-side we recorded for a blues”, and “Green Onions”. Albert King’s “Oh Pretty Woman” was the first to have Booker T on guitar, with an old-guys-still-got-it strut. But the standout was “Take Me to the River”, all defrocked gospel, and featuring a speedy rap from the ebullient drummer, as au fait with Q-Tip as Art Blakey.
Following a short break, Booker T returned to the Hammond to sing Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” – his playing spare, his speaky vocal at its most confessional. Either side of a carnival-like “Soul Limbo” (the TMS cricket theme) were two new instrumentals, “Feel Good” and “66 Impala”, a gentle sway and a sultry tryst with “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. Pleasant, no more or less. At the last, “Time is Tight” grew into a victory march, that evocative organ blare so retro it could come with sideburns, yet somehow eternal.