Before the Houston Person Quartet took the Art of Jazz stage Sunday afternoon, there was a brief talk by local saxophonist Kelly Bucheger. In it, he riffed about "The Boss Tenor Tradition," referencing founding luminaries like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and others before turning to the subject of Houston Person.
Now, when performances from around the globe are as close as your Internet hookup, there are fewer opportunities to hear a giant who grew out of an earlier tradition or, as Bucheger put it, listening to Houston Person is like "a direct line to a school of tenor playing that you don't get to hear that often."
Then the band took the stage, and "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" was the first song rockin' out of Person's saxophone, a Duke Ellington tune that serendipity called upon to echo Bucheger's statement. It was a muscular, swinging performance that, right out of the gate, set a standard that would, over the course of the concert, be met time and time again by the quartet.
Person keeps a tradition that creeps into an art preserved beyond its time by showcasing the basics of the form. The foundation of his style can be found in his reliance on the blues and putting the melody line upfront in the mix. It's an approach to art that was honed in smoke-filled lounges and on stages all over the world.
Person's playing was so strong that there was some question about whether he actually needed a electronic amplification; when he stepped away from the center-stage microphone, leaving room for the other musicians to solo, you could still hear his sax as loud and prominent as ever until he reached the end of his phrase and the soloists kicked in with their licks.
All of the tunes heard in the set could be termed "chestnuts," songs that sounded good one, two, three, four decades ago and still sound worth tackling in today's market. The ballads were lush and soulful while the up-tempo selections showcased wit and invention more than sheer technical speed. Songs like "Who Can I Turn To" and "The Way We Were" moaned and wept, while "Lester Leaps In" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" jumped and swung.
Person's approach to his standard-filled set became apparent at the end of the fifth tune, when he faced his audience and talked for the first time. It was one of those brief, humor-laden monologues where the artist lets it be known where he stands -- "I don't remember the songs we played, but you know them all anyway." At the end of the gig, after the well-deserved encore, the audience was still up on their feet, standing and shouting their approval. Earlier in the concert, the person next to me had been talking about how cold the hall was, but at the end of the program she said of the group's performance, "That turned the heat on."
Houston Person Quartet
Part of the Art of Jazz Series.
Sunday afternoon in Albright-Knox Art Gallery.