Roy Ayers Ubiquity, Jazz Caf, London
Monday 07 January 2008
Mostly used for colour in rock and pop, the vibraphone has been a bona fide lead instrument in jazz for decades, most notably with Lionel Hampton, who presented a six-year-old Roy Ayers with a pair of mallets at a concert in the 1940s.
The young Ayers had been transfixed by Hampton's performance and has been the keeper of the good vibes flame ever since. Indeed, Ayers has arguably taken the percussive instrument further than anyone literally, when he toured Nigeria with Fela Kuti in 1979, and more figuratively when hip-hop acts such as A Tribe Called Quest began sampling his infectious grooves.
Ayers also pioneered a fusion style that found a new home in Britain in the Eighties and sparked off the Acid Jazz phenomenon. An habitual visitor to these shores, he feels right at home in his two-week residency at the Jazz Caf, which has become a regular fixture of the capital's festive season.
Opening with the tight funk of "Searching", he barely needs to direct the proficient quintet around him. "Erykah Badu couldn't make it, she has a cold," quips the showman-turned-salesman by way of plugging Mahogany Vibe, his current album, which features the soul diva. Not that they need her. Ayers has a fine singing voice, as he demonstrates on "Can't You See Me" and "Love Will Bring Us Back Together", two of the tunes that helped establish him in the Seventies.
Saxophonist Ray Gaskins is no slouch as a vocalist either, even if his "Shady Lane" rather meanders down a blind alley.
This turns out to be the only disappointing moment. Whether using one or two mallets in each hand, going from a shimmering ripple to a cascade of notes, Ayers leads from the front. He punctuates the chord changes, slides the mallets across the bars, solos with a dizzying dexterity and hits the cymbals on Lee Pearson's drumkit behind him.
At one point, during the instrumental "Expansions", Ayers even makes his instrument sound like a synthesizer. Towards the end of "Don't Stop the Feeling", bassist Donald Nicks, keyboard-player Mark Adams and guitarist Tommy Smith hit a hypnotic, near transcendental groove.
As Ayers turns "Don't Stop the Feeling" into a finale on a par with Sly and the Family Stone's Woodstock show-stopper "I Want to Take You Higher", even Pearson is drumming from a standing position. The encore is "Everybody Loves the Sunshine", Ayers' best-loved composition. Good vibrations on a cold night.
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