Jazz has always drawn nourishment from dance rhythms, yet needs to be careful it doesn’t drown in them. The fusion of waspish keyboards and funkadelic bass that saxophonist Ronnie Laws surfed to crossover success came close to that dangerous point, but on his best recordings and especially in live performance he could conjure soulful licks and trenchant lines with the enterprise and power of the best soul singers.
This gig twinned him with trumpeter Tom Browne – his “Funkin’ for Jamaica” is a club classic – and added a makeshift rhythm section. Regular bass guitarist Nick Cook played a steady but over-restricted holding role, and Jason Robello and Troy Miller fleshed out textures and beats on keyboards and drums. It’s 30 years since this particular jazz-and-beats formula captured the energy of clubland’s leading edge, and this gig caught fire only sporadically – a few more dates would do the trick. Still, the repertoire clearly stands the test of time.
The first set opened brightly with the tight and twisty theme of “Freedom Jazz Dance” – Laws’ muscular edge-of-harmony lines contrasting with Browne’s subtle shades and melodic spin. Steely Dan’s “I.G.Y.” followed – a ballad and the only dodgy moment – and then a long Monk-quoting soprano introduction to the first of the classic hits, Laws’ “Friends and Strangers”, to the obvious delight of the audience. Laws grinned and then cajoled a handclap from the crowd.
Jazz was never far away, though. Browne’s muted solo looping round Michael Jackson’s “I’ll Be There” was beautifully phrased – a reluctant singer, Browne got the audience to sing the verse – and by the first-set finale, Eddie Harris’s “Listen Here!”, the band was adding the ad-lib frills of a genuine fusion.
The sprightly second set ran through big hits, genre classics and standout solos – such as Robello’s graceful piano introduction to “People Make the World go Round” and Miller’s end-of-set drum climax. The encore, a second spin for the warp-and-woof bass line of “Funkin’ for Jamaica” mixed get-up-and-dance singalong with soul-stirring jazz.