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Sax legend Person brings vintage style to Jazz at the Albright-Knox

With all the time the Rolling Stones spent in Buffalo over the weekend, I half expected them to stay to catch the opening of The Buffalo News’ Jazz at the Albright-Knox festival.

Saxophonist Houston Person, the featured artist, is a legend. I am sure Mick Jagger knows who he is. This is the kind of sound the Stones value, this honest, no-holds-barred, bluesy playing.

The people who did turn out – and a big crowd did – were rewarded with one of the best concerts I can remember in The News’ long-running concert series.

Houston Person, as any jazz musician will tell you, is old school. He coaxes sounds out of his weathered sax that you want to swear have not been heard since Count Basie walked the earth.

He had excellent sidemen in pianist Lisa Hasselback, bassist Wayne Moose and drummer Danny Hull, all of whom he acknowledged regularly in his deep gravelly voice. The band played him up, keeping things simple so he could shine.

Person, too, shines by keeping things simple.

Anyone who wants to learn to improvise – in jazz, rock or classical music – should listen to what he does. He mostly plays tunes straight, but he bends notes here and there, throws in honks between lines, dreams up eloquent beginnings, adds beautiful cadenzas at the end. Usually you can tell right away what song he is playing. There was one notable exception. He did things backwards with “Since I Fell For You,” toying with the tune and getting just a bit closer to it until, finally, you heard the song straight.

It’s hard to describe the greatness of the Houston Person style. He has a gift, something that can’t be taught. He plays quietly but with strength. He has a marvelous musical intuition.

Ballads made up about half of Sunday’s concert. That was a treat, because it was different from the repertoire that he played when we heard him free, along with his late wife, Etta Jones, at the Pine Grill Reunion several years ago. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” was disarming and intimate. Person whispered the first lines and it was like someone whispering to you in the dark. “What a Wonderful World” was enchanting, with Person soaring as Hasselback played graceful triplets behind him.

What a wonderful way Person has with jukebox ballads. He makes them sublime. Time seemed to stand still as he gave us a nostalgic, understated “The Way We Were” and a breathtaking “Blue Velvet.”

“I understand Bobby Vinton’s going to be in the area soon,” he said smoothly. “We thought we’d give him a boost.”

The up-tempo numbers were fun, appealing in a different way. They included “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” “Social Call” by Gigi Gryce and “Let’s Fall in Love.” The band kept things moving with grace and zest.

Person is not one for banter. He’s more the strong, silent type. But he seems extraordinarily gracious. Photographing him became like a spectator sport, with one fan after another getting in his face, iPhone in hand. He played serenely through the pictures.

When he wasn’t playing, he stayed involved with the other musicians, smiling at them, encouraging them, digging what they were doing. All of them had their moments in the sun. Moose, on bass, played a lovely, melodic solo in “What a Wonderful World.” Hasselback and Hull gave poetry and bounce to Benny Carter’s “Only Trust Your Heart.” (“That’s bad advice, by the way,” Person told us, deadpan.)

There was one encore, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.” It was a funny choice, because for two hours, I think, things were what they used to be. Old school, there’s nothing like it.

Jazz at the Albright-Knox continues next Sunday at 2 p.m. with another excellent ballad player, saxophonist Don Rice.


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