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Houston Person dazzles with a return to the groovy organ quartet sound on 'Live in Paris'

Houston Person ©devin rodino.jpg
Devin Rodino

Saxophonist Houston Person's constant connectivity with listeners and concert goers has made him a favorite on the international music scene for nearly 60 years.

"I've always been an audience guy," Person shares in this episode of Let Me Tell You 'Bout It. "I believe in bringing the audience along and enticing them to inspire me to take [the performances] further."

Decades before email, websites, and social media were the common platforms for audience gathering and exchange, Person booked his own tours and maintained his own mailing lists in different cities to promote engagement with his audiences.

WBGO's Let Me Tell You 'Bout It w Houston Person (Part 1)

"I approached it as if I were [running] any regular business," Person says. "You [meet people] and start soliciting work. If an audience member filled out my contact card with their information, I would send them birthday greetings - anything to give me the extra edge - things that are still being done today."

On bandstands around the world, Person, who turned 87 on Nov. 10, is the embodiment of the power yielded by strong melodies plus a heavy dose of soul. He springs from the lineage of tenor saxophone titans such as Illinois Jacquet, whom he names a key influence on his early listening and playing. Person's newest recording, Live In Paris, is an energizing set of driving, soulful swing and balladry that matches him with the talented young organist Ben Patterson, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Willie Jones III.

Lester Leaps In (Live)

"Everybody plays so well that I wanted as many as possible to hear it," Person said. "There is spontaneity and the guys left it all on the stage. It's a groovy kind of album."

Person is no stranger to the tenor-organ-guitar-drums instrumentation. Many of his finest appearances as a leader and sideman in the 1960 and '70s featured him in groups alongside legendary guitarists Grant Green and Melvin Sparks, organists Charles Earland and Leon Spencer, and drummers Bernard Purdie and Idris Muhammad often recorded before an audience. As evident on Live in Paris, the audience that gathered for Festival a la Villette in the fall of 2019 was extremely enthused. Person's all-star ensemble was certainly dialed in, just mere months before the global pandemic and subsequent shutdown. The band's take on familiar tunes such as the Bobby Hebb standby "Sunny" and the Lester Young classic "Lester Leaps In" are confident and creative.

When asked if familiar songs have assumed more of a role as comfort in the pandemic era, Person quickly agrees.

"We play a version of 'The Way We Were' on the album as well," Person explains. "That tune takes on a different significance after what we've been through."

Given Person's ethic, longevity, and consistency, it's a surprise that he has not yet received the nation's highest commendation for improvisers, the NEA Jazz Masters Award. He says his main goal is playing at a high level and maintaining artistic control over his output.

“I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. What I enjoy is to evolve naturally,” Pearson said. “I just want to play good music and make people happy.”

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.