Ray Blue Rings True With Pan-Atlantic Quartet At Pizza

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What better way to celebrate International Jazz Day than with a one-off multi-national quartet? Stretching a point maybe, for US tenor-saxophonist Ray Blue's quartet at Dean Street was three parts American, but completed by that estimable Brit, Steve Brown, on drums. As it happens, Brown was recommended to Blue, pianist Lenore Raphael and bassist Hilliard Greene by bebop guru Barry Harris in New York, a further illustration of the international fraternity that is jazz.

Blue is a busy presence in New York who works with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, runs an organ trio and tours regularly in and around Europe, giving workshops and playing clubs. Europe's gain has been our loss for too long. Still, last night's sterling performance in front of a full house should raise his profile here, that is if any smart promoters are reading these words. I heard Blue a couple of years ago in New York and knew right away that he was the real deal. He has the big sound and the improvisatory presence of someone who knows his way around the mainstream vernacular, unfurling long, broad-shouldered solos on standards and originals that may make you think of Houston Person or early Sonny Rollins, vigorous players who know how to hold a crowd. A burly figure, avuncular in style, Blue's playing is redolent of the man, as he showed on 'Softly As In A Morning Sunrise', up-tempo and resourceful, Brown up on his points and driving hard, with the veteran Raphael contrasting firmly-struck chords with delicate, filigree runs, Greene rocking to and fro as he built up swing.

A scratch group maybe, but quickly into their stride as their two packed sets continued to demonstrate. 'Our Day Will Come' at a medium lope, had Blue bearing down on the beat, the tone a touch grittier before his original 'Attitude', a jigsaw piece that seemed to go in two different directions at once. Then came a first-set highlight, a superb ballad reading of 'That's All', the tone softer, the phrasing more spacious, the ideas neatly resolved, Raphael more relaxed and at ease. Her solo piece, 'Blues for O.P.', reflected her liking for the great man, with more strong chords and virtuosic keyboard runs, the band rocking with her.

Brown's all-systems-go percussive introduction launched Blue and co into a searing version of 'Caravan' before another Raphael original, 'Miles Away', evoked a Kind of Blue vibe ahead of a 'bit of R&B' according to Blue on a stomping 'Teach Me Tonight'. Berklee-trained Greene (formerly a Jimmy Scott sideman and MD for 20 years) then embarked on a solo feature that combined soulful arco readings of 'Negro Spirituals' with some zingy pizzicato on his electric upright instrument. That said, the night truly belonged to Blue: imperious or relaxed, he's a front-rank player who should be more widely heard. This one-nighter done, he was off to Paris, Brussels and Rome. See what I mean? Their gain, for sure.

Peter Vacher