April 15, 2014

Jazz Comes Home to the Attucks

by Jim Newsom

In its heyday, the Attucks Theatre hosted the biggest names of the jazz age, from Duke Ellington to Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald to Nat King Cole.

One of the highlights of the Virginia Arts Festival in recent years has been the Attucks Jazz Club series, put together by ODU music department chair John Toomey. Bringing in musical friends—some famous, some not well known—he accompanies them on piano with locally popular jazz royalty like Jimmy Masters and Jae Sinnett rounding out the band for the four week run.

This year’s lineup is a good one: two jazz legends, and two superb musicians who are probably unfamiliar to Hampton Roadsters. Saxophonist Houston Person and guitarist John Abercrombie have had lengthy careers and are both considered among the top players on their instruments. London-born vocalist Tessa Souter has made a big mark on the New York scene. Bill Pierce is chair of the woodwind department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Person, who celebrates his 80th birthday later this year, called me last month from New York as he was packing for a flight the next morning to San Francisco. Friendly with an easy laugh, he said he’s never performed in our area but he’s been to Norfolk many times.

“I’m a southerner from South Carolina,” he explained. “Of course I’ve been there.”

Like many youngsters, he was more into sports than music as a child growing up in Florence, South Carolina.

“My mother played the piano,” he said. “Every home had a piano back in the day. I had piano lessons, but I didn’t do anything with it.”

But by the time he want to college at South Carolina State, he knew what he wanted to do. He majored in music there and later played overseas with the US Air Force band. By the 1960s, he was a major force on the “soul jazz” scene, both as a leader and as a sideman. His 30+ year association with vocal great Etta Jones was especially fruitful.

“We had a nice relationship,” he said. “I always wanted a singer with the band that I had. She was a singer who had no band. So it was a perfect match for us. We liked the same types of music. There was no egos involved: she did her thing and I did mine. She had a beautiful personality. Naturally I had none so it was a good match!”

In fact, he has quite a personality and an irresistibly expressive tone on the tenor sax.

John Abercrombie has carved out a distinctive niche for himself by pushing the boundaries of jazz. He first came to prominence during the fusion era of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We talked about those days when he was here a few years ago.

“I started out as a real jazz guy when I went off to the Berklee School in the early ‘60s,” he told me. “Even by the time I was getting out of school and hanging around Boston, the fusion thing hadn’t come full circle yet. It was starting in the mid ‘60s; guys were talking about wah-wah pedals and listening to Jimi Hendrix. But before that it was pure jazz, and that’s what I was trying to play. I used to play with these organ trios and play standard songs--that’s what I wanted to do. And then all of a sudden the fusion thing hit and I found myself wrapped up in it.

“A lot of guys my age or a little bit younger were primed for that. We were just kind of jumping on the bandwagon; it seemed like whatever Miles did, everybody did.”

Over the last forty years, he has produced a diverse collection of recordings, mostly for the ECM record label:

“That company wants you to be experimental and try new things. They don’t want to hear standards; they want to hear something new and fresh. So I’m encouraged to do that.

“The songs are fairly well written. Some are just sketches, but most are full-blown songs. Just like playing a standard song, but the forms are more complex. They have odd numbers of bars, and they have quirky harmonies.”

Tessa Souter is of Trinidadian and English descent. Her music draws from influences spread around the world, resulting in a unique blend that stands out among her jazz peers. Her voice is a compelling instrument. Her choice of material is fascinating: She has recorded material by Sting, Pharoah Sanders, Lennon/McCartney and even put a Brazilian stamp on Cream’s “White Room.” It will be a delight to hear her upclose and personal at the Attucks.

Saxman Bill Pierce has played with Stevie Wonder, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and a lengthy “who’s who” of the jazz world. Although he honed his chops playing classic soul and R&B in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, his style is best described as coming from the hard bop school. The mix of Pierce and Person two weeks apart will give local saxophone lovers a chance to contrast and compare two of the finest in a classy and intimate setting close to home.

Attucks Jazz Club
Saturday nights at 8:00 pm
May 3 – Bill Pierce, saxophonist
May 10 – Tessa Souter, vocalist
May 17 – Houston Person, saxophonist
May 24 – John Abercrombie, guitarist
Tickets: $20.00

copyright © 2014 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.