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January/February 2009

Houston Person
The Art and Soul of Houston Person
HighNote Records

Houston Person has never been the most electrifying or adventurous tenor saxophonist around, nor the most distinctive, but he’s always been reliable. And never is he more reliable than when he tackles a standard, which—this collection makes clear—is rather often. Cherry-picking from Person’s HighNote Records catalog, spanning 1996 to the four newly recorded songs that open the set, the three CDs—every track engineered by the venerable Rudy Van Gelder at his New Jersey studio—are all about Great American familiarity: The material comes from Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein, Carmichael, Porter, Ellington and the like; the interpretations rarely step out of the lines; the arrangements remain polite and the tone burnished and warm.

Person’s preference for tradition and melodicism may make for a decided dearth of sparks and surprise, but his solos are masterful enough to ensure that his work evades boredom, and he does have a gift for choosing sympathetic accompanists. Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh’s “Where Are You?,” drawn from Person’s 2004 sax-piano duet album with Bill Charlap, You Taught My Heart To Sing, is typically minimal and melancholy, bringing out the saxophonist’s generosity of spirit and emotionalism while reminding of Charlap’s particular gift with standards. And “I Only Have Eyes for You,” featuring Russell Malone on guitar, Richard Wyands on piano, Ray Drummond on bass and Grady Tate on drums, swings steadily without breaking a sweat.

Of the three discs, it’s the second that packs in both the greatest quantity of heavyweight tunes (“Blue Moon,” “Fools Rush In,” “Bewitched”) and the most consistently impressive performances: Person may not be saying anything in his “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” or “It Had to Be You” that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, but few have told those stories with as much grace and respect.

Originally published in January/February 2009
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