The comedy started when the concert didn't, the doors of the QEH remaining closed while the musicians did a brief sound-check on-stage. Once inside, the promoter surprisingly sought to defend the choice of the pianist for the session, John Law - the only white guy on stage - rather as if a football manager were to apologise to the crowd for his choice of striker during the pre-match warm-up. As the players were announced, they trooped on stage and took up their positions, all except the American Chico Freeman, who delayed his entrance just long enough to separate himself from the pack and thus claim star status. This was more than a hint as to what would follow.
The four tenor players represented four quite different versions of jazz fashion. Chico Freeman wore American lounge chic, a crimson jacket over an encrusted black shirt, with the suggestion of a cummerbund beneath. The other American star, David Murray, wore a sober suit, as if to show he meant business, while the Virgin Islander Jean Toussaint (who once played with Art Blakey but now lives in London) wore a country- gent ensemble with a touch of Chris Eubank about it. The Londoner Steve Williamson showed them all up with a loose clubber's coat over baggy check trousers and a hairdo of rootsy dreads. He looked like the star of the show already, but would they let him blow? Honestly, he hardly got so much as a suck in all night.
Clearly, there were questions of seniority involved. Toussaint would introduce a number in his deepest American drawl but defer to Freeman whenever necessary. Freeman would spread largesse about, offering Toussaint and Murray a soulful handshake following their solos. Murray, who is the hottest player of the lot and absolutely the man for such an occasion, started off a little removed from the others, but soon moved into the centre. Toussaint, meanwhile, tried to keep Williamson in the frame, offering fatherly words of advice and encouragement. The rhythm section, however, might as well have been on another planet, they were given so little attention. Pity the poor pianist John Law, whom no one so much as looked at all night, however brilliantly he played.
The music was chaotic - you felt they hadn't had time to be introduced, let alone to rehearse - but it eventually prevailed through what the event was, after all, about: heroic individual solos in which the sax warriors got to slaughter the sacrificial lamb of each tune with the blunt edge of their instruments. Freeman grandstanded shamelessly, Murray did his patented routine of seeming to inflate his entire body with breath, and Toussaint justified his campaign for parity with the big boys. Even Williamson, once he overcame his reticence and the intimidation of the others, eventually got a look in and sounded great. It was big alright, it was a blow, but it sometimes seemed more like wrestling than music. Nice!
There is surely no one in jazz who likes a good suck as much as George Melly, but on Thursday night at Ronnie Scott's in Birmingham, he was blowing up a storm. All the old favourites were present and correct: "What a pity it wasn't Cockfosters"; "You peed in the fridge"; "Did he mention your big fat arse?", and, of course, "Whose pies are they?" The songs were pretty good too. What is so remarkable about Melly, now a schoolboyish septugenarian, is not the fact that he does it so well, but that he ever chose to do it at all. While the attractions of Bessie Smith, blues and bar-room banter might in retrospect have seemed just the ticket for a young surrealist all those years ago, the disparity between Melly's sophisticated manner and the double entendres of the Harlem vaudeville lyrics he sings is still strikingly odd.
George and his chums - he was accompanied, as always, by John Chilton and his Feetwarmers - look like a bunch of bespectacled Pops of the sort you see staring intently at the rawl-plug display at Homebase. But their respectable exteriors belie dark stirrings beneath. Chilton's trumpet is played with a mean tremolo and is far more authentic than the usual Home Counties Harlem style. Pianist John Vinton rolls out barrel- house blues and Fats Waller swing with great aplomb, and George, well, he's George to the hilt. Bulldog jowls flap as his voice (not a naturally well-tempered instrument) slurs and slides its way around the already sticky material, and what the voice can't quite do any more is completed by a generous range of gestures.
Not surprisingly, he does tire a bit and when he retires to a chair to sit and watch, he suddenly looks as old as his years. The withering of age does have its compensations, however, at least for the audience. A debut performance of the Gershwins' "Our Love is Here to Stay" was delivered in a quiet, half-spoken, elegiac manner that was very moving, and it made you think what Melly could still achieve by, like Humphrey Lyttelton, moving slowly towards the second part of the century.
But this was a great, deeply humanist performance by a true artist. There's echoes of Falstaff, of the late poetry of Thomas Hardy, of an old man raging (or should that be pissing?) against the dying of the light. Thankfully, there's also rather a lot of the smart-set camp of Douglas Byng, the creator of "Doris the Goddess of Wind". You should book your Christmas dinner with George now.
George Melly: Ronnie Scott's, W1 (0171 439 0747), 15 Dec to 3 Jan.Reuse content