Jean Toussaint  – February 2024

Progress Theatre, Reading Friday 9 February 2024

Jean Toussaint tenor saxophone with Peter Billington piano, Paul Jefferies bass & bass guitar and Simon Price drums

From the moment a beaming Jean Toussaint took to the Progress stage on Friday 9 February to a rapturous reception from the sell-out audience it was clear that we were in for a very special evening of jazz. Toussaint’s tenor saxophone filled the auditorium with its soulful tones as he kicked off the gig in the excellent company of Messrs Billington, Jefferies and Price with ’10 Bar Blues for Jimi’. This heartfelt dedication to Jimi Hendrix served as the prelude to the richly varied programme to come, an irresistible mix of jazz standards and Toussaint originals.

Paul Jefferies’ insistent bass paved the way (no pun intended) for a visit to ‘On Green Dolphin Street’, a swinging and often recorded standard, most famously by Miles Davis classic sextet in 1958, which unleashed the full jaw-dropping power of Toussaint’s improvising skills.

In complete contrast, Toussaint drew on the inspiration of Billie Holiday for a sublime reworking of ‘These Foolish Things’. With the sensitive support of the rhythm section, he captured the full aching beauty of the timeless Eric Maschwitz/Jack Strachey composition.

The edgy groove of ‘Mood Mode’, from Toussaint’s 2014 album ‘Tate Song’, worked as a brilliant conversation piece between the wailing Toussaint and the sparklingly inventive piano of Peter Billington – on a splendid Yamaha instrument especially hired for the occasion from Hickies Music Store. The final word(s) fell to Simon Price egged on by Jean Toussaint. Pure magic!

Toussaint closed the first set and opened the second with two contrasting, but deeply felt tributes to members of the Toussaint family taken from the 2023 album, ‘Songs for Sisters, Brothers & Others’. One might describe ‘Blues for Sister Yve’ as a call to prayer, such was its emotional force and joyous expression of the human spirit. ‘Kalila’, on the other hand, portrayed a lady of more wistful and reflective qualities. As Toussaint declared, ‘Music is from the heart’. I would say ‘Amen’ to that.

Writing catchy blues themes is one aspect of Charlie Parker’s genius that is all too often overlooked. ‘Now’s the Time’ is one such tune, so catchy indeed, that R & B bandleader Paul Williams lifted it ‘lock, stock and barrel’ from Parker’s 1946 recording to create a hit for himself under the new title, ‘The Hucklebuck’, claiming the copyrights and copious royalties in the process! Toussaint resisted the temptation to take ‘Bird-like’ flight on the number. Instead he took the theme through a series of beguiling variations in time, rhythm and harmony.

He did, however, really stretch out on ‘Vera Cruz’, a gorgeous composition from the pen of Brazilian musician Milton Nascinmento, before paying tribute to his mother with a stunning performance of Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless the Child’.

A reprise of ‘Blues for Sister Yve’, Toussaint’s signature tune, brought a magnificent evening of music to a fitting close.

Jean Toussaint is a true giant of jazz, a master of his instrument, a composer of rare quality and a source of inspiration whose generosity of spirit embraced everyone fortunate enough to be present at the Progress gig. He drew ‘out of this world’ performances from Peter Billington, Paul Jefferies and Simon Price of which they can be justly proud. Long gone are the days when the visiting ‘star’ would simply ‘call the numbers’, set the pace and ‘the devil takes the hindmost’. This was a quartet in the truest sense of the word. ‘That’s the happiest band I’ve ever seen at Progress,’ remarked one member of the audience as he made his way out of the auditorium … enough said!

Our thanks to Mark Werner of Hickies for the hire of the piano, to Stuart McCubbin and the Progress front of house team for looking after everybody so splendidly and Rich Saunders for the excellent sound and lighting, and to the audience whose consistent support keeps jazz alive at Progress.

Review posted here by kind permission of Trevor Bannister
Photo by Steve Foster @jazzshots (Instagram & FB)