Houston Person’s Foot-Tapping Soul

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Person’s esthetic took shape in an era when jazz functioned as neighborhood social entertainment and moved with a deep dance groove.

(Photo: Eugene Petrushansky)

When tenor saxophone soul maestro Houston Person talks about his life and career — like the time he was studying at the Hartt Conservatory, in Connecticut, and wound up playing with Coleman Hawkins — he often drops in a self-effacing phrase like, “I got lucky,” then erupts in a hearty laugh.

Don’t let that “aw, shucks” manner fool you. This 88-year-old veteran may make everything sound as breezy as his svelte 2013 album Nice’n’Easy, but that distinct, throaty sound and effortless-sounding solo style developed not through luck, but serious study, smarts and grit. As did his 60-plus-year career as a self-managed, working musician who has toured five continents and released 75 albums as a leader.

“It just grew and grew,” Person insists, seeming to shrug as he speaks on the phone from his home on Long Island, New York. “I enjoy it. I have no complaints.”

Person shows few signs of slowing down. He recently produced and co-released I Want A Little Boy, with infectious San Francisco singer Kim Nalley (and guest vocalist Maria Muldaur), which they showcased for an adoring crowd at last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival. Nalley, who used to own Jazz at Pearl’s in the City by the Bay, started working with Person in the ’90s, but in some ways had known him all her life.

“When he was going to school, he knew my grandmother, who used to hang out at after-hours sessions in New Haven,” where Arthur Prysock and Jimmy Scott were regulars, recalls Nalley. “It was quite a lively Black scene back in those days.”

Person’s esthetic took shape in that era, when jazz functioned as neighborhood social entertainment and moved with a deep dance groove — finger-popping fast or bunny-hug slow, a time when soloists never let you forget the melody and when the saxophone sounded like it was making love to you.

“Once he gets hold of a tune, he’s going to make you cry, or wiggle in your seat and tap your toe,” says Nalley, who’s right there with him on I Want A Little Boy.

She brings the sexy 12/8 torch song “Never Let Me Go” to a growling, yodeling climax (à la Gil Scott-Heron); nails the unusual ballad “It’s All In The Game” (a hit for the Four Tops); and channels a bit of Dinah Washington on “Try A Little Tenderness.”

Nalley and Person also have another connection. She wrote a Ph.D. dissertation about African-American musicians in post-World War II Germany, a cohort that included Person himself, who was stationed in Heidelberg with the Air Force in the late ’50s. There, the saxophonist often sat in with players in the 7th Army band, like Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris and Leo Wright. Person’s 1968 Prestige album with Walton, Blue Odyssey, is an unsung mainstream classic.

Last year, Person also issued Reminiscing At Rudy’s, a swinging quintet nod to the great producer Rudy Van Gelder (1924–2016), whose fabled Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, studio has hosted dozens of Person sessions over the years, including the tenor saxophonist’s first recording as a leader, 1967’s Underground Soul! (Prestige), featuring organist Charles Boston, trombonist Mark Levine and drummer Frank Jones.

Recorded for his longtime label home, HighNote, the ballads-heavy Reminiscing At Rudy’s features Person with guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Mathew Parish, pianist Larry Fuller and drummer Lewis Nash.

On Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love,” the saxophonist testifies over Fuller’s funky tremolo; crystallizes the sweetness of Walton’s ballad, “I’ll Let You Know”; takes Paul Anka’s teenybopper plea “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” to a plausible place it’s never known; and gooses Henry Mancini’s waltz “Moon River” into swinging 4/4 with a chipper, clipped delivery.

“Everybody’s been calling me about that,” says Person. “I’ve been playing it that way forever.”

For Person, “forever” is only half hyperbole. Raised in Florence, South Carolina — Arthur Prysock country — in the 1930s, Person took up saxophone at 17, then played in the big band at South Carolina State College before enlisting in the service. After classical training at Hartt, where his classmates included bassist Ron McClure and vocalist Dionne Warwick, Person was hired by organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith, recording nine albums with him for Riverside and Prestige from 1963 to ’70.

The popularity of B-3 groups insulated Person from the ’60s assault of rock on the jazz market and probably also reinforced his sense of jazz as entertainment.

“The organ stayed closer to the values of what we considered jazz music, which was dance music and having fun,” Person says. “If you take the dance out of it, people go elsewhere.”

Prestige picked up Person as a leader in 1966. Underground Soul! was followed by nine more albums, two of which — Person To Person and Houston Express — were re-released in 1996 as part of Prestige’s Legends of Acid Jazz series.

Person also starred on one of the most durable Billboard-charted R&B albums of the late ’60s, Charles Earland’s Black Talk, which, among other crossovers, funkified “Aquarius,” from the musical Hair.

Etta Jones had already made a name for herself with her 1960 hit “Don’t Go To Strangers” when she and Person solidified their intermittent musical (though not personal) partnership, in 1973. The pair went on to tour and recorded together for more than a quarter of a century, snagging Grammy nominations twice, for Save Your Love For Me (1980) and My Buddy: Etta Jones Sings The Songs Of Buddy Johnson (1998).

Person not only toured and recorded with Jones, who died in 2001, he produced her albums, a role he also has taken on for Joey DeFrancisco, Lafayette Harris, Red Holloway, David “Fathead” Newman, Ernie Andrews, Earland and many others.

Person credits Van Gelder for teaching him a lot about production by example: “Help gather the personnel, take care of administrative duties, make things comfortable. These are some of the greatest musicians in the world. Then just stay out of the way and let them create.”

Says Barney Fields, who succeeded his father, Joe, at HighNote when he passed in 2017, “It’s all about the tunes. They fit a certain groove. They’re danceable. Soulful. Cedar Walton knows what tunes he wants to do, but with Houston, there’s a respect. He’s done it. And he’s very efficient, timewise. He gets things done.”

At 88, you might think Person would consider kicking back a bit.

“I say I’m going to do it,” he confesses. “And it sounds good, it sounds logical. But then somebody calls and I say yes.” DB



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