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Kim Nalley and Houston Person team up on a bluesy set of old-school jazz and R&B favorites. Bay Area vocalist Kim Nalley’s name may be listed first on I Want a Little Boy, her band’s exuberantly soulful new album. But esteemed tenor saxophonist Houston Person’s moniker is prominently featured alongside hers, and she sees the recording as something of a joint project; in fact, Person is listed as the album’s co-producer.
“Houston and I have been playing together for years and years,” she notes, “and we’ve kept saying, ‘We’ve got to record an album,’ but we were so busy that it didn’t happen until now.”
“We’ve developed a great friendship,” confirms Person, who enjoyed a decades-long musical partnership with the late jazz vocalist Etta Jones. “And we respect each other’s positions. When I work with other artists, I try to contribute something — just a feeling for presenting music that’s accessible. Old tunes done in a new way and new tunes … well, just doing them!” Blues People, from 2015, was highlighted by two Nalley originals, “Big Hooded Black Man” and “Ferguson Blues,” that sound particularly timely against the backdrop of the 2020 social-justice protests that followed the murder of Minneapolis’ George Floyd. “It was more controversial, more protest-y,” she acknowledges. “But for this album, Houston and I wanted to do something that made people feel really good.”
Epitomizing this approach is her lovely reimagining of “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the theme song for the long-running PBS children’s program starring the late Fred Rogers. “We started doing that a while ago,” she says about her stellar regular group of pianist Tammy Hall, bassist Michael Zisman, drummer Kent Bryson and guitarist Barry Finnerty, who anchor the recording. “It just felt like the world, and especially this country, was so divided, and we had kind of forgotten we were neighbors. I think that song reminds people of where we want to be and where we should be at.”
Person suggested several other numbers that made the cut. “He definitely selected some things I knew that weren’t in my repertoire, like ‘It’s All in the Game,’” a chestnut most associated with Tommy Edwards’ 1958 hit version. “That was Houston being proactive. Mostly, we wanted to do some grown-folks music.”
Another example cited by Person is “Never Let Me Go,” in which he offers an exquisitely tasteful counterpoint to Nalley’s passionate delivery. “That was sung by a great singer, Johnny Ace, years and years ago,” he recalls. “Songs like that are just lying there, neglected. I always try not to forget them.”
The title track, meanwhile, turned into a highlight thanks to Nalley’s chemistry with a special guest. “I thought it would be great doing it as a duet with somebody like Maria Muldaur, who’s like the blues category Grammy queen,” Nalley says. “My co-producer, Joel Jaffe, has recorded Maria on a lot of her albums. Although I knew her from some places, I didn’t have her number, but Joel did and said, ‘Why don’t you call her up?’ And when I did, she was like, ‘Hey, good to hear from you. Yeah, I’ll come on down and do it.’”
The result of this impromptu brainstorm is wonderfully ribald. “I love being bawdy,” Nalley admits. “Usually at a concert, I’ll say, ‘It’s time to do some blues. Do you want a sad blues, a happy blues or a nasty blues?’ Invariably, the audience says they want a nasty blues — and I give it to them!”
The freshness of the performances was no accident. “I always try to bring something new,” Person acknowledges. “I guess that’s my job.”
“We click on so many different levels,” Nalley says of the 87-year-old tenor-sax great. “He’s taught me so much — like the gig’s not over until the last hand is shook, the last picture is taken and the last CD is autographed. I’m so glad we got to make this album together.” - Michael Roberts