Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2009: George Colligan

Houston Person: Savvy, Simple, and Soulful

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The mark of a savvy performer and master of their craft is often better felt than explained—it’s a total experience of thought, sound, and feeling. If tenor saxophonist Houston Person can pull that off through his recordings, his live performance will have us thinking, hearing and feeling long after his visit to Winnipeg this fall.

Growing up with music likely influenced Person’s decision to follow his passion and study music at the South Carolina State College, then later at the Hartt School of Music. He first made his mark on the professional music scene in the 1970s, specializing in gospel, R&B, and of course disco. His style is most often called soul jazz, with occasional forays into acid jazz.

Some of his influences were Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley and most significantly Illinois Jacquet. Another major figure for the bluesy tenor player was Johnny “Hammond” Smith—they played together a lot in the mid 1960s. Since that time, organ players have been a staple for Houston’s own music and sound.

Houston’s large body of work spans decades and is a treat for any listener to swim through, but a few notables might help you prepare for the real live thing. His latest solo album, The Art and Soul of Houston Person, was released in 2008. If you’re looking for a duo pairing, bassist Ron Carter joins Person for Sometime in Common (1989). Classic standards are everywhere throughout his recordings, and some of his beautiful ballad work can be heard on My Romance (1998) and To Etta with Love (2004), a tribute to his long time friend and musical partner, the late Etta Jones.

To add to my personal collection, I picked up Legends of Acid Jazz, a reissue of Houston Express and Person to Person!, two of his most funky and popular albums from the 1970s. Across all of the tracks, Person presents a very confident and self-assured persona. He knows what he wants his music to be, and he knows how to share it so you know it’s him but are still curious to hear what he has to say. His R&B, soul and blues vibe is definitely dominant, but it is easy to hear he has skills in many musical styles. The bebop lines that come out of his horn are clear and swinging, his softer sub tone approach is something you’d hear from Coleman Hawkins or Paul Gonsalves. And his fingers are fast! No note value is left behind as he covers them all seemingly with ease and no second thoughts. The harmonies are easy to listen to and the groove is hard to lose.

Another attractive quality? Houston Person knows how to make you feel a certain way. Whether it’s a sensual serenade or a front burner blues, he can set the mood.

As a saxophone player myself, I’m drawn to his sound. He plays from his core. He pulls his music from a very deep and powerful place within himself. He has the ideal edgy soul sound, a hard driving definition with a hint of forbidden sass. He reminds us that the saxophone is an instrument like no other. With the popular appeal of an electric guitar, the preaching power of a lead singer and all the rhythm a drummer can create, the saxophone can say it all, sounding one note at a time. It is the responsibility of the player to make the horn sound good, and Houston has that down to an art.

When Houston Person visited in Winnipeg in 2007, he quickly became a favorite as both a performer and a teacher. Now he’s coming back to remind us all about keeping it bluesy, basic, and beautiful.

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