Roy Ayers has been called a great many things: the Godfather of neo-Soul, the most hit-based sampled artist in hip-hop, jazz-funk pioneer, post-bop jazz artist, vibraphonist and singer songwriter. Perhaps some of the above are contentious – for starters, James Brown would have something to say about the second – but what can’t be denied, is that the man is a living legend, whose colourful career has spanned six decades with no signs of slowing up.
The excitement levels for the show were understandably high then, even more so after reading that Jazz Café – alongside Ronnie Scott’s – were Ayers’ favourite venues in the world to play at. We filtered in nice and early, expecting proceedings to kick off with an undisclosed special guest before the main act. So, it was a shame to learn Ayers and his band were to be unaccompanied for the night, besides two warm up DJs. They played some fantastic soul, funk and rare groove, but understandably struggled to fill the live music void.
Disappointment abated with Ayers’s introduction to the stage. His energy was suggestive of a man half his age, and was infectious to both the crowd and his seriously tight band. They were stripped to the basics: a drum kit, a couple of sets of keys, bassist and vocalist / percussionist, sat on stage with the vibraphones front and centre. Considering this, they made a lot of noise. By the time they paid homage to Funkadelic’s ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’, the crowd was swelling. Next came the anthemic ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’, which unsurprisingly sent the place bananas. Stretching it far beyond the original 3:45 play time is somewhat of an Ayers live performance trademark, and suffice to say the players didn’t disappoint, looping layers of gloopy funk on top of one another like a fat stack of syrup pancakes.
If anyone was wondering if Roy still had what it took, doubters were silenced by ‘Love Will Bring Us Back Together’. Midway through, he broke into a vibraphone solo that showed his world class technique with the mallets, and replicated this on ‘Don’t Stop the Feeling’, this time with three mallets in hand! Admittedly, his vocal range isn’t what it once was, hence the need to countenance this with the addition of another vocalist. But, considering he’s now 75, it was truly astonishing to see him rock the famed Camden venue with such gusto.
‘Running Away’ was another feather in the cap played to rapturous applause and dancing. But, instead of reeling off a full tracklist, we’ll leave you with an anecdote of the night which shows why Ayers is so revered. Come the end of a lengthy gig, you’d think Roy would be backstage, catching a breath and cooling off. Such assumptions would be correct for most, but not the Brooklyn veteran, who was back on stage taking pictures and signing autographs within minutes of finishing. The snaking line of punters with cheek to cheek grins waiting to sneak a photo and handshake filled Ayers with the same joy we felt due to his consideration. And perhaps it’s this that ensures a Roy Ayers gig is as powerful six decades into his career. A perpetual exchange of energy and elation, with both parties giving as much as they take.