SAX MASTER HOUSTON PERSON AT EUBIE BLAKE CENTER SEPT. 22

by Rusty Hassan.
Houston Person’s Big Beautiful Sound

Houston Person is certainly carrying on the tradition of the big tenor sound created by his early influences Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons. Although he has recorded prolifically and traveled extensively, he still, as the cliché goes, deserves wider recognition. At age 79, he is playing as well as ever, as his recent High Note recordings that I have been featuring on my WPFW radio show will attest.

For years he recorded and toured with Etta Jones. The partnership was so strong that many fans assumed they were married. Jones and Person appeared regularly at the East Coast Jazz Festival, produced by vocalist Ronnie Wells. I would often serve as m. c. for their performances there. Since Jones’s passing in 2001 Person has worked with a few other vocalists, such as Barbara Morrison, but his focus has been to tour and record as a saxophonist without a singer in his working band.

It had been a few years since I last saw him perform, so I had to make the drive up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to catch his performance at the Eubie Blake Jazz Institute on Sunday, September 22nd. My arrival was delayed by traffic and the set had begun already when I entered the hall shortly after five pm. Houston Person is a master at performing standards from the Great American Songbook, songs that are immediately recognized by listeners of a certain generation. The audience nodded with approval at his beautiful rendition of “People” and applauded as they recognized “Since I Fell For You.” When Person took the microphone in his hand and I got out my notebook to confirm the titles, he joked that he and the band members had already forgotten which tunes they had played. After he introduced John DiMartino on piano, Matthew Parrish on bass and Chip White on drums, he said he would play something sweet by Lester Young. After emphasizing sweet as if it were to be a mellow ballad, he jumped into a burning “Lester Leaps In.” It was indeed “sweet!”

It was great catching up with Person and DiMartino during the break. The ambience at the Eubie Blake Institute reminds me of, on a smaller scale, the Left Bank Jazz Society performances at the Famous Ballroom. In fact, there were a lot of veterans of that golden era of Baltimore jazz in the audience. I got so engaged in conversations that when I went over to the vendor to purchase a fried chicken dinner, they were sold out!

The second set again demonstrated Houston Person’s connection to his audience. He wished someone named Byron a happy birthday and a brief rendition of the birthday song led into a medley of ballads, blues and bossa novas. “What a Difference a Day Makes” had a tasty samba rhythm, while “Sunny” swung hard. “Please Send Me Someone to Love” was blues drenched. DiMartino, Parrish and White are musicians Houston obviously enjoys working with. The interaction and solos were superb. “As Time Goes By” gave the feeling that time had gone by all-too quickly at the Eubie Blake Jazz Institute on this Sunday evening. But it was certainly time well spent. Thank you, Mike Binsky, for bringing Houston Person back to Baltimore. Bring him back again. Soon.

– Rusty Hassan