Last Night Roy Ayers @ Nectar
posted by October 17 at 15:45 PMon
Photos by Edward Williams
Surveying the crowd at last night’s Roy Ayers show at Nectar, I had a good chuckle over Sasha Frere-Jones’ jones: If you’re starving for soul, don’t go see an indie rock band, go see a legend of soul. Roy Ayers is exactly that. In the 1970s, the “Godfather of Acid Jazz” took the vibraphone into some of the finest disco-funk-jazz jams of all time.
But nobody’s heard much of his recent stuff. I was nervous going into the show that his sound—historically somewhere between hard funk and smooth jazz—would be watered down by age and compromise. Adding to my fears were the two giant digital keyboards included in his setup, and an estimated average band age of around 45.
The fact is, Ayers’ sound was smoothed-out by age, but in a way that only highlighted the band’s mastery of their unique style. Last night Ayers’ music occupied a crowd-pleasing realm all its own, as up-jumping as it was relaxing. From the first note, Ayers got the willing crowd involved in the show, and folks held on til the last note.
About that crowd: I’ve never seen a more diverse audience in Seattle. Spanning age and race, dancers twisted and swayed on the dance floor, while the balcony was occupied by older jazz cats dressed to the hilt, sitting down to survey the band. This was not a typical Fremont crowd, or a typical Seattle crowd, really. It was a special occassion sort of crowd, and everyone was feeling the vibe.
Ayers himself turned out to be as affable a legend as one could imagine. Seattle, he told the crowd to open the show, has long been one of his favorite, most supportive cities, and he fittingly altered the lyrics to “We Live In Brooklyn” for the hometown crowd. He was backed by a five-string bassist (decidedly wanky in any metal or prog situation, but almost essential for proper groove-jazz low end), a full-time keyboardist, a keyboardist/sax/clarinet player, a hypeman, and a wicked drummer.
Throughout the night, familiar acid jazz tropes surfaced in the music: double-time tempo changes, slamming breakbeats, alto sax and clarinet solos, and of course the liquid-sunshine sound of Ayers’ vibraphone. The fun/revelation came in remembering that this is the guy who invented those tropes back before they were familiar. Despite the dueling keyboards, there was very little gushy synthery going on; sounds were discreet, solid, distinct from each other as in jazz, though locked in on pendulous dance-mad grooves that never for a second faltered. (Actually, a technical problem during a ridiculously technical bass solo derailed the music for a moment, but the bassist came back with a ferocious finish.)
Rather than save his hit for a big finale, Ayers dispatched with “Everyone Loves the Sunshine” early on in the set. It sounded as buttery and anthemic as ever, with the crowd chanting along to the lyrics as they writhed on the dance floor. Beside me, Eric Grandy spoke of a relaxed, stress-free vibe—opposite of rock shows, where the countdown to the hit and the end of the show is a constant source of anxiety. The music could’ve kept on all night or it could’ve stopped abruptly; either way, the band was delivering a satisfying show.
A quick “Flashlight” tease led into a cover of “Not Just Knee Deep”—the P-Funk song famously sampled by De La Soul in “Me, Myself & I.” It was a great look for Ayers’ band, making their own one of the four pillars of funk. All through the night, a towering hypeman/interpretive dancer added backround vocals and hilarious hand movements while riling up the crowd and encouraging (and getting, loudly) call-and-response participation.
Towards the end of the set, Ayers led the crowd in another well-performed call-and-response—they audience-contributed response part of which was far more impressive than most. Before long, Ayers was singing scat-like gibberish and completely losing the crowd. He then turned to his hypeman, and the dude was right there with him. The two had a drawn-out conversation in some alien jive language, a hilarious, left-field interlude.
There was the requisite bass solo and a requisite drum solo, both delivered with scathing efficiency. Songs were stretched out to allow melodic soloing from the keyboards and horns, but the speed with which they snapped back into uber-tight full-band jams was whiplash-inducing. Ayers displayed a comfort on-stage and with his instrument that only comes through 40-some years of playing. It was a pleasure to watch and a sweaty mess to dance to.
It was great to be out at a show that wasn’t a rock show, wasn’t a hiphop show, wasn’t a jazz show, wasn’t a DJ set—this was groove music, pure and liberated and aimed straight at the soul. Not every concert has to be measured by the familiar standards of rock and rap. Ayers is a true original and a true originator, and spending a night with him and his music was a reminder of how good the “other” kinds of music can be. I wonder if SFJ caught him when he was in New York last week.