A brace of whoops and a blues-soaked slide were an instant reminder that the sobriquet “soul” was first applied to jazz instrumentalists rather than household-name singers. Houston Person was embellishing the opening bars of Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing ’Til You Hear From Me” with soul-sax subtleties and turning a double-time run into a gospel-preacher’s shout.
Person first recorded in the mid-1960s, at the peak of the soul-jazz boom, when emotionally direct and technically adroit musicianship was balm for the spirit after a long working day. In the early 1970s he teamed up with singer Etta Jones and for the next 30 years co-led a hard-working combo, returning to his solo career only when Jones died in 2001. Now a somewhat avuncular presence – Person was born in South Carolina in 1934 – and obviously moved to be on a rare visit to Europe, his effortless mastery of a trademark style filled the club with warmth.
Both sets featured a blues and a bossa, there was an effortless romp over “Lester Leaps In” and several sprightly jazz-repertory swingers – “Sister Sadie”, “Sweet Sucker” and Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”. And there were achingly slow ballads too, whose trademark delivery captured every last romantic drop of titles such as “Maybe You’ll Be There”, “Who Can I Turn To?” and “Too Late Now”. Person’s sensuous timing and furry tone wrapped each melody in velvet, confirming Wynton Marsalis’s description of him as “the last of the boudoir tenors”.
The uncluttered, in-style rhythm section was led by Ronnie Scott’s house-pianist James Pearson, who met the saxophonist while playing in New York. “He’s the boss,” said the veteran saxophonist, pointing at the pianist with a smile, “I passed the audition.”
Like the saxophonist, Pearson mixed technical dazzle with single-note grace and his florid runs and two-fisted climaxes were equal highlights. Most impressive, though, was the sense of space, with Shaney Forbes’s brushwork whiplash-tight, his crisp press rolls lowering volume; when he was given the spotlight he had the confidence to start his feature with two bars of silence.
The gig ended with “Sunny Side of the Street”, “Wonderful World” and the murmur of an audience unselfconsciously humming along before clapping in time to the final shuffle.