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Music Review: Houston Person – Mellow

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As a title, Mellow might imply a sleepy and quite possibly uninspired session calculated to avoid challenges. That notion is quickly dispelled by the sprightly take on "Sunny,” the old Bobby Hebb chestnut that kicks off this collection, here given a rollicking reading that effectively recasts the song as a jazzy exercise in harmonic exploration.

Person, of course, is a master of understated elegance, a balladeer of the highest order. But he’s equally capable of playing tough, soulful tenor with virile vigor. Mellow, his latest for New York-based HighNote Records, shows both sides as Person delivers a program that alternates between creamy-smooth ballads and bluesier offerings with significant bite.

Burton Lane’s relatively rare “Too Late Now” follows “Sunny,” with Person delivering a gentle yet nuanced performance, all wistful melancholy and exquisite grace. Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone” swings easily yet mightily, no surprise given the supporting rhythm section of bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Lewis Nash. Guitarist James Chirillo contributes fleet fretwork on this one as well.

“To Each His Own” is another ballad, Person again mining lesser-known material to excellent effect with a breathy, achingly romantic approach. “What A Difference A Day Made” is given a breezy, swaying treatment with a latin feel, while “Two Different Worlds,” similar in tempo, gives pianist John Di Martino an opportunity to stretch out with a sparkling yet elegantly restrained solo.

Person digs deep for “Blues In The AM,” an exultant exploration of the uplifting power the blues can have in the right hands. “Who Can I Turn To,” in contrast, is almost fluffy in feeling, light and airy and supremely relaxed. It’s back to the blues for a fine take on “God Bless The Child,” This one is indeed a mellow stroll, with Person, Di Martino, and Chirillo all taking time to extrapolate leisurely on that timeless melody. Things come to a close with “Lester Leaps In,” Drummond and Nash taking solos this time on a rendition that positively cooks yet remains tightly focused – Person and company keep things simmering without boiling over, favoring intelligence and artistry over exuberance as befits seasoned veterans of their caliber.

Sound is absolutely stellar, with legendary (in this case the title’s well-deserved) engineer Rudy Van Gelder handling recording, mixing, and mastering. Mellow it may well be, but thanks to consummate musicianship and exquisite taste, Person’s latest provides some genuinely stimulating listening.

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