JAZZ / Band on the run: Roy Ayers - Ronnie Scott's, London

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The Independent Culture
PRETENDING his audience is on loan from Madame Tussaud's, and asking them to 'join hands and see if we can contact the living' is one of Ronnie Scott's best- loved jokes. But as he introduced the American vibist Roy Ayers and his band on Tuesday night, Scott didn't know how close to the mark he was. Despite having one of the world's greatest feel-good groups on stage, a lifeless crowd didn't appear to be feeling anything for much of the first set. Even the imperturbable Ayers noted that 'it looks like some of you haven't been out in three or four months'.

More soul than jazz, Ayers and Co are a functional band in the classic R & B mould, playing music designed to make you move. In the absence of normal channels of communication, Ayers' irrepressible animation was turned in on itself, and his wide-boy persona - all flashing eyes, glinting gold teeth and crotch-grabbing demeanour - was displayed more to the rest of the band than to the audience. Eventually, however, Ayers prevailed, getting everyone to sing along with the anthemic 'Everybody Loves the Sunshine'. It looked like hard work.

This latest edition of the band adds the saxophonist Ray Gaskins to the quartet who accompanied Ayers on his Ronnie Scott's season last year. Doubling alto sax with keyboards and vocals - and sometimes blowing and playing piano at the some time - Gaskins has a wonderfully raucous paint-stripping tone that could make David Sanborn green with envy. Zachary Breaux on guitar plays with heavy-lidded eyes that make him look half-asleep, but shows an absolute command of the soul-jazz register, riffing off Wes Montgomery-style double- octave runs. The songs float on a cushion of airy keyboards from Mark Adams and Gaskins and are expertly underpinned by Donald Nicks on bass and the remarkable drummer Dennis Davis. A member of Stevie Wonder's band for 12 years (though he began his career with Ayers), Davis works a kit large enough to tax a whole team of drummers, and supplies entertaining electronically-assisted scat vocals.

As the leader, Ayers veers between bouts of virtuoso showmanship and serious paternal concern for the efforts of his employees. Nods and glances cue in each soloist, and Ayers is ceaseless in his encouragement. All they need to excel is a bit of response. At Bristol's Lakota Club on Saturday they rocked the house, with 600 people dancing along. At sedate Ronnie's, they remained relatively sedated but still come heavily recommended. But if you go, please let them know that you care.

Roy Ayers and his band continue at Ronnie Scott's Club, Frith St, London to Saturday 30 January (071-439 0747); then at Ronnie Scott's in Birmingham from 1-12 February (021-643 4525).