Great Moments With Mr. Rockefeller: Ray Price, Bobby "Blue" Bland and the Kansas City All-Stars

[Ed. Note: To help spread the word about next Friday's benefit for the Houston International Festival's education programs at Rockefeller Hall, featuring Texas Johnny Brown and Marcia Ball, Rocks Off asked iFest director of performing arts and former Houston Chronicle music critic Rick Mitchell to reminisce about the most memorable shows he saw at the venerable Washington Avenue music hall. See more information here or here.]

Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys: "My predecessor, Bob Claypool, wrote a review once where he imagined honky-tonk heaven, with a bottle of whiskey on every table and Ray Price's band onstage. On this night, my first time seeing Price live, I got what he meant. Price's '50s and '60s hits set a standard for Texas honky-tonk that has been emulated by everyone who has come after, up to and including most notably George Strait.

"Here, the fiddle-n-steel essentials had been augmented to include a three-piece string section, but the classic shuffle rhythm remained strong and true, and Price's voice was smooth and unflappable, though settled in a lower register than his younger years. I later realized after seeing Ray a few more times that he pretty much did the same set every night, right down to the between-tunes patter. But the memory of this night remains a vision of honky-tonk heaven."

Bobby "Blue" Bland: "Amazingly enough, this show took place the night after Ray Price. So on two successive nights, I saw for the first time the greatest country voice ever to come out of Texas and the greatest R&B voice ever to record in Houston. Bland's Duke-Peacock album Two Steps From the Blues (the title track of which was written by none other than Texas Johnny Brown) gets my vote for the best Houston music album of all time.

"With his horn-driven band mixing classic jump-blues and Southern soul grooves, Bland groaned and growled and rasped and moaned through what added up to a virtuoso performance of mature and sophisticated R&B singing. I remember wondering what might happen if Price and Bland could perform on the same bill, bringing the former's virtually all-white audience and the latter's virtually all-black audience together.

"Of course, this was before I had any idea that I would be programming the Houston International Festival, which attempts to do something like this every year."

The Kansas City All Stars: "This was part of the Verve Jazz tour, with Charlie Haden and Joe Henderson. For some reason, Charlie skipped this show, and Joe was not at his best. But this big band, which had been assembled for Robert Altman's movie Kansas City and which featured younger jazz musicians playing in the hard-swinging style of Jay McShann and Count Basie, was good enough to make up the difference.

"I remember one tune - it might have been 'I Surrender, Dear' - that started out with Henry Butler playing a stride piano solo that reached back to Jelly Roll Morton and the New Orleans roots of jazz. Then James Carter stood up and played a tenor solo that started in the '30s with Ben Webster growls then jumped to the '50s with Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis shouts and then ventured out to John Gilmore's squealing orbits around Sun Ra in the '70s.

"I remember thinking, 'I feel sorry for whoever has to follow this.' And then trumpeter Nicholas Payton stood up and topped everything that had just been played with a flawless solo that eschewed tricks or showboat techniques; just clear-toned melodic improvisation in the bravura tradition of Louis Armstrong. This is what jazz used to be about, and rarely is anymore."

Note: Tickets for next Friday's benefit are only available through iFest; please do not call Rockefeller Hall. Stay tuned for Rick's final three picks on Friday.

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