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AAA Music | 22 April 2024

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Roy Ayers – Live @ Ronnie Scott’s

| On 09, Aug 2015


Roy Ayers has been playing at Ronnie Scott’s since before Ronnie Scott even bought it. For a neo-soul jazz legend to predate the iconic Soho jazz bar means something… the bar opened in 1959. It is a testament to London’s jazz culture over generations, and not only has Roy Ayers been a guiding force within that, he was doing it before it even started.

In any career that long, there are highs and lows, and even the great Roy Ayers has not always had the same level of commercial success stateside. In such times many artists have found a home in London, where there has been a consistent taste for jazz and the more experimental for decades. Many artists speak of London as the place they knew they could continue and in some cases the only place that would sustain them. Within this stomping ground Ronnie Scott’s is the Mecca. I am a huge fan of Roy Ayers, and have seen him in an old Croatian fortress (at Dimensions Festival 2014) and elsewhere, but to see him in this historic red velvet lounge, Ronnie Scott’s, is truly special.

Roy enters the stage so humbly, and digs in with his first song ‘Sweet Tears’: “free to stay forever…”, and yes he is. Only another song in and he drops the one everyone is waiting for: ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’. So iconic and engrained in our common consciousness, you can almost hear it playing in your mind on a good day. If the sun could make a sound, wouldn’t it be this song? “My life, my life, my life…. In the sunshine.”

Then Roy reminded us of the late 70s funk he was so inspired by and in turn influenced by himself, with ‘Love Will Bring Us Back Together’, and in the room, it did. In this period, Roy dabbled with the new funk sounds and even did a collaboration with Rick James, a real gem. During this rendition we get to hear Jamal on piano. Jamal is one of the more consistent members of Ayers’ band, and you can see the love and appreciation on Ayers’ scrunched up, awe-stricken face as he watches Jamal jam on the piano and synth. Then, over to the drums. The drummer knows what to do, and on bongos Chief Udu the bongoist, in his traditional and flamboyant Nigerian garbs, is a reminder of the heyday of Roy’s tours in Africa collaborating with the great Fela Kuti. It’s clearly a time cherished by Ayers, and a sound and feeling that Chief Udu ensures laces all the songs throughout the performance. For more of this I recommend checking out the Music of Many Colours collaboration album. It’s a meeting of worlds. One that thankfully we are still witnessing today.

Roy, at 74, doesn’t partake in a vibraphone solo as he did in his 1988 performance at Ronnie Scott’s. A must see:

However, as you can see, it’s Roy Ayers’ charisma that is centerpiece of any of these performances. His jokes, his one-liners, his cheeky smiles and dances carry the crowd and guide the band like a pro. Like the grandpa you wish you had.

The band then takes us to their more moody side, with ‘We Live in Brooklyn Baby, with some slight alterations: “we live in London baby… we shop at Tesco’s baby”. They then crack out the crowd-pleasing ‘Searching’ and ‘Running Away’. And please the crowd they do. The crowd gets on their feet and gets down. Everyone. After a while it dawns on me how rare this is. I ask around, the support band, everyone: “have you ever seen this at a jazz gig before?” I am sure it has happened, but no one there could remember an occasion. The fact it took a 74-year-old to get us on our feet to jazz is just blowing my mind. Tracks like ‘Searching’ and ‘Running Away’ have been sampled in hip hop all over, and not just in Ayers’ many collaborations with legends like Erykah Badu but in commercial hip hop where they are unlikely to be recognised, but here it is, jazz and neo-soul heads, on their feet to the original, in its raw form, a beautiful moment.

Roy Ayers turns 75 this year, and it is certainly the year of the Ayers. You can catch a song of Ayers’ every week on Gilles Peterson’s BBC6 show in honour of the man and his 75th year. 2015, year of the Ayers.

For me, many years are the year of the Ayers. I started a playlist a while ago of music associated to him or influenced by him. It’s now 60 hours long. It spans hip hop, funk, soul, jazz. Lonnie, Liston Smith, Bobbi Humphreys, Donald Byrd, Weldon Irvine, Graham Central Station, Jose James, Rick James, Erykah Badu, Fela… what hasn’t the man touched in all those years pioneering on his vibraphone with that groove?

After the show I got to meet the legend himself. I nervously told him about this playlist. “Get that out, let me see it” he smirked. Fingers shaking, I did. “Lemme hear that”. A queue of people waiting to shake those percussionist hands in this bustling long red velvet corridor, surrounded by photos of Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Courney Pine, Chet Baker and all those greats photographed in their Ronnie Scott’s performances… he hangs on to my crappy phone holding it up to his ear and starts jamming with his face. Scrunching it up like he has done since before I was born. “mmmmm”…“mmmmmmm, who dat?”…“lemme hear dat again?”.

That scrunched up face is the face of music across so many eras. One that I think London is going back to, as house and electronic music brings genres – soul, funk, jazz, African beats – all back together again. So yes Roy… let us hear dat again.

Del Newman