Houston Person
Houston Person at Keys Jazz Bistro | Credit: Simon Rowe

Houston Person isn’t the kind of saxophonist who wins jazz critics’ polls. He’s never been described as “cutting-edge” or “pioneering” or “groundbreaking.” Instead, he’s exemplified, across hundreds of albums as a sideman and a leader since the late 1950s, jazz’s populist mainstream at its most pleasingly soulful.

Best known for his work in organ-combo settings and as an eloquent foil for some of jazz’s finest vocalists, particularly the late Etta Jones, the 89-year-old tenor man is a genial lion in winter whose croon has lost none of its grit and grace. In town last week for a series of gigs set up by Oakland pianist Joe Warner, Person returns to perform in the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s free Juneteenth celebration on June 15 and at Half Moon Bay’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society on June 16, both dates with Person2Person, a quintet he co-leads with alto saxophonist Eric Person (no relation).

For his early set on Friday night at Keys Jazz Bistro in North Beach, Houston Person was joined by bass master Essiet Essiet and veteran drummer Greg Hutchinson, the latter in town from Rome, Italy, for these gigs with Warner. The pianist opened the night with two detailed arrangements for the trio. A stop-and-start rendition of “My Funny Valentine” turned the ballad into a metrical obstacle course, while Warner’s left hand revealed Cole Porter’s dark, obsessive vision in “All of You,” a tune that’s a plea for a restraining order.

With Person taking the stage, the aesthetic took a 180-degree turn, pivoting from conceptual charts to the drama of swing. Levitated by Hutchinson’s feathery brush work, the saxophonist’s murmured rendition of “My Foolish Heart” distilled Victor Young’s melody to its aching essence. Person was equally effective swinging “Our Day Will Come,” streamlining the bossa nova groove of the chart-topping 1963 hit by Ruby & the Romantics.

Person delivered another master class in understatement on Jule Styne’s “People,” a molasses ballad rendition that caressed every melodic contour. Closing the set with a blues by the late, great tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, Person made a point of featuring Hutchinson, a trap set poet whose concise, unflashy solo summed up an evening of relaxed virtuosity.