Roy Ayers is in the foyer of his surrogate home, Ronnie Scott's (the Los Angeles vibraphone player, singer, band leader and jazz legend holds the record for selling out the venue), holding court and meeting and greeting his audience as they come through the door. He shakes you by the hand and wishes you a good new year - it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Ayers is commonly known as "vibes man", for his innate gift of radiating positive, feelgood vibes through his music. But in hip-hop circles, Ayers is the "icon man", thanks to the volume of his samples and breaks appropriated by the genre (P Diddy, The Roots and A Tribe Called Quest, among many others). It's not only hip-hop that owes Ayers a debt of gratitude - he fused jazz and disco in the 1970s and formed a fruitful relationship with the Black President, Fela Kuti, in the 1980s. Soul artists, including Betty Wright (Joss Stone's mentor and co-writer) and Erykah Badu particularly, have worked with Ayers extensively. His influence is also apparent in contemporary dance music - Ayers contributed two tracks to Masters at Work's 1997 Nuyorican Soul; arguably house's finest LP.
The 64-year-old, wearing a charcoal-grey suit, black T-shirt and a thick gold link chain, exudes the energy of a man half his age. Ayers and his partner in crime, Ray Gaskins (singer, keys and saxophonist), are consummate, old-school showmen - the banter between the two is automatic.
The line-up's completed by another keyboard player, two guitars (electric and bass) and a drummer. The formal introductions come after set opener "Searching", sung by Ayers holding four vibraphone batons (two red, two grey in each hand respectively). It sums up Ayers music - it's honest and life-affirming, yet inquisitive and penetrating.
"We Live in Brooklyn, Baby", taken from Destination Motherland, captures and celebrates the ghetto struggle. Its, "We live in Brooklyn, baby", chorus is hilariously twisted to, "We shop in Tesco, baby", by Gaskins. Vocals take a back-seat as its rigid deep funk comes to the fore. It gets deeper as the electric guitarist, dubbed Thunderfoot, riffs and cranks up the feedback. Ayers' vibraphone provides the pyschotropic embellishment and the gig's crowning moment comes when Gaskins, astoundingly, plays the saxophone with one hand and keys with the other.
Ayers deflects the audience's rapturous appreciation away from himself and towards the band by turning and gazing at each of them, with an expression of wide-eyed awe. It's straight into "Everybody Loves the Sunshine", featuring a magical vibraphone solo that illuminates the dark, basement jazz club, as Ayers leads the audience through the chorus.
Ayers was once asked how he would like to be remembered. "As someone who spread goodwill through his music and made people happy", he replied. Ayers has more than achieved this goal.
Roy Ayers is in residence at Ronnie Scott's to 22 January