ONE wonders how many people knew Houston Person was celebrating his 79th birthday while performing at Mumbai’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre on Sunday night. In fact, going by the sheer brilliance with which the American played his tenor saxophone, and the charm he displayed in the few words he spoke, one would assume he would be a few years younger.
Compared to Saturday night’s near-full attendance at the three-day Jus’ Jazz festival, thanks mainly to the presence of the top-draw name of violinist Regina Carter, one saw many empty seats on Sunday. But most who attended would have been convinced Person gave one of the best jazz performances Mumbai has ever seen. While the second half featured the energetic mastery of saxophonist Igor Butman and the gorgeous voice of Fantine Pritoula, the impact created by Person and his quartet will be remembered for weeks to come.
Person isn’t such a well-known name in India, and I personally had never heard his music before. Even in the US, it’s said that he received his much-needed recognition rather late in his career. Among the general jazz audience, he was mainly known for his four-decade collaboration with singer Etta Jones, though the hardcore connoisseurs had recognised him way back in the 1960s for the sheer soulfulness of his playing. Yet, for most part, he has remained one of the under-rated geniuses.
That soulfulness still exists, as was evident in Sunday’s show. Each note he played had elegance, emotion and expression written all over. His interpretation of Duke Ellington’s ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me’, Lester Young’s ‘Lester Leaps In’, the Louis Armstrong-popularised ‘What A Wonderful World’, or standards like ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘People’ and ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ exhibited true class. There were other tunes that seemed familiar, and though I couldn’t pinpoint their names, they left me spellbound.
It was the purest form of jazz one could hear. It was the jazz sound that ruled the 1940s and 1950s, before other elements were fused in to enhance its mass appeal. A mix of ballads and the blues, standards and swing, the music was intricate enough to make you appreciate its deeper nuances, and yet relaxing enough to help you unwind.
Add to that the fact that Sunday’s show featured a classic jazz quartet line-up of tenor saxophone, piano (John Di Martino), bass (Matthew Parish) and drums (Chip White), and the end result was pure magic. Each musician excelled, both in the accompanying parts and during the solos, and everything added up so wonderfully.
We’ve seen many musicians get standing ovations for their performance, but Person deserved something even more special, and got it too. After his encore, he had waved goodbye to the audience, and walked to the green room. Everybody wanted more, and kept screaming their requests, without giving up. Even after a few minutes, a large number stayed back in the hall, till Person returned and played another tune. The audience couldn’t contain the excitement.
STILL buzzing from the show, I decided to gather more information about Houston Person. There wasn’t much on the Net, but for a Wikipedia profile, a few other short descriptions of his career, a few reviews of his latest album ‘Nice ‘N Easy’ and only a couple of interviews or write-ups. He’s recorded over 75 albums as a bandleader, which is evidence of his prolificacy.
Luckily, there is a lot of material on YouTube, including his interpretations of the classic old numbers ‘Moonlight In Vermont’, ‘Mack The Knife’, ‘All The Things You Are’ and George Gershwin’s ‘Love Is Here To Stay’. But the one that moved me the most was his heavenly rendition of Richard Rodgers’ ‘My Romance’.
The few interviews and write-ups on him provide a good glimpse of his musical mindset. In an interview given in 2004 to allaboutjazz.com, he says: “It’s important that jazz is relaxing. Something that when the end of the day comes, after a hard and frustrating day out in the world, that relieves you. Relaxes you and makes you feel good.”
In an interview to noted jazz scholar and critic Nat Hentoff, Person said that, like Lester Young and Ben Webster, he always first learnt the lyrics of the songs he played. He also told critic-author Doug Ramsey: “The lyric gives the song its meaning and provides the springboard for the improviser. I never play a song the same way twice, and my music doesn’t disguise the melody or reshape it or convolute it so that it’s unrecognisable.”
Those few quotes surely sum up Person’s approach to his music. They also explain what makes him special in the world of the jazz saxophone. Those who saw him on this tour of Mumbai, Delhi and Pune were lucky. It’s not too often that we in India get to hear traditional jazz of his extra-extraordinary calibre.
The Houston Person Quartet played on the final day of the Jus’ Jazz festival, organised by the National Centre for the Performing Arts and Jazz Addicts, at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre from November 8 to 10. The other performers were the Renee Rosnes Quartet, the True School Manhattan Six Band, the Helen Sung Quartet featuring violinist Regina Carter, the James and Wes Legacy Band and the Igor Butman Quartet featuring vocalist Fantine Pritoula.