The Jazz Heads are a seasoned and soulful quartet powered by the hiss and ping of Jimmy Cobb’s cymbals and fronted by tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. Cobb was the undemonstrative drummer whose hip, pared-down beats featured on Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue; Pee Wee Ellis helped develop the rhythmic intricacies of funk alongside James Brown. Organist Ike Stubblefield also has a hefty list of soul credits – the Motown roster and Al Green both feature – while guitarist Grant Green Jnr is a mainstay for established leaders of organ jazz.
At this gig Ellis’s repertoire dominated – George Benson and saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Stanley Turrentine and Eddie Harris were all colleagues or friends – and the delivery was more blowing session than tightly argued showcase. Cobb, content to let his cymbals do the work, chattered sparsely on the snare and marked each chorus with an accent or roll. His brushwork on “All Blues” retained its original magic, and he took a couple of nifty round-the-kit breaks.
Stubblefield and Grant Green Jnr also sounded good and had a strong sense of rhythm and form. But they are solid soloists rather than star turn improvisers and it was Ellis who provided focus, creativity and grit. His sinewy phrasing, sensuous tone and acute sense of time changed well-known themes into personal statements. And as familiar riffs fell in unexpected places and hollers came out of the blue, stock phrases turned into pearls.
The opening “Sonnymoon for Two” was a blues epic that twisted this way and that, a cruise-control “Sugar” had hidden depths and “Mambo Inn” was a little light touch. And the mid-set “Masquerade” was a warm highlight featuring sing-as-you-play guitar – with Green singing the notes he picked George Benson-style – and a flourish of saxophone cadenzas.
The set finished with the audience gleefully chanting the name Eddie Harris in pinpoint time – some wiseacre had shouted “Eddie who?” when Ellis announced saxophonist Eddie Harris as the composer of the finale, “Cold Duck Time”; by the tune’s end, the name Harris was etched forever in the mind. “I can’t finish the evening with everybody shouting Eddie Harris,” Ellis said, before cueing a short and funky “Song for My Father”. They could have played more, but were already over the allotted time.