Introducing Jon Hendricks to the stage, Michael Mwenso of Ronnie Scott’s warned the audience that they were about to see something impossible. Hendricks, the ‘James Joyce of Jive’, has always taken the impossible in his stride, scatting like a horn and setting lyrical narratives to breakneck solos by Ben Webster or John Coltrane, in a process known as ‘vocalese’. On top of that, he is now 89.
Thursday’s show could be divided into those moments which were remarkable for an 89-year-old, and those which were remarkable for a man of any age. Hendricks has trouble getting his lips around some of his more insane lyrics these days, but his swing and showmanship are intact. Flanking him in what he called ‘Lambert, Hendricks & Ross redux’ were Kevin Fitzgerald Burke and his daughter Aria. The late 1950s / early 1960s group with Annie Ross and the late Dave Lambert has a good claim to being the greatest vocal jazz group of all time; judged by that gold standard the ‘redux’ line up inevitably falls short, but they still do a more than adequate job of selling the material.
And what material. Both sets opened with Count Basie swingers (It’s Sand, Man! and One O’Clock Jump respectively), and there were also classic arrangements of Duke Ellington (In A Mellow Tone) and Horace Silver (Come On Home, Doodlin’). Hendricks’ method is to take the character of an instrumental performance and flesh it out into a story or conversation; he treats jazz above all as an act of communication, and his lyrics make most sense when experienced live.
Though best known as a swing and bebop cat, some of Hendricks’ biggest successes have been as a translator of bossa novas (indeed, he plans to record an album with Joo Gilberto in the coming months). He delivered gorgeously understated versions of Desafinado (in Portuguese and then in English) and Preciso Perdoar, his affectingly croaky delivery contrasting with whistling solos using a drumstick held aloft to make a ‘flout’ – like a flute, he quipped, for those who flout convention.
The jokes are never far from the surface with Hendricks – “I was only serious“, he said more than once – while humour, sincerity, artistry and showbiz are all part of the package for a performer who falls somewhere between preacher and stand-up comic. “The lyric is good!” he announced with James Brown-like assurance before Now’s The Time, only to burst into hysterics during his solo, cracking himself up with a mime routine adjusting the pegs of an imaginary bass.
The band featured Hendricks regulars Andy Watson on drums and Paul Myers on guitar, joined by Brits Mark Hodgson on bass and James Pearson on piano. Pearson, Artistic Director of Ronnie Scott’s, brought his versatility, whether channeling Count’s swinging style impeccably on the Basie material or bringing an Oscar Peterson flair to his solo on Rhythm-A-Ning. The show also featured solo showcases for the other vocalists, allowing Hendricks a breather. Aria Hendricks gave a cabaret-blues-mama performance of Since I Fell For You, and Kevin Fitzgerald Burke sang the Panamanian tune Historia de un Amor.
It was however a pity the remarkable Burke chose such a demanding key and consequently struggled with the high notes; his best moments came elsewhere in the set when he deployed his array of vocal effects including bowed bass and trumpet sounds. The fourth vocalist of the night was elder daughter Michele Hendricks, who demonstrated her great scatting chops on Everybody’s Boppin’ and Jumpin’ At The Woodside.
The set finished with a hat-trick of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross classics in Moanin’, Centrepiece and Cloudburst, all given to a standing ovation, before Hendricks returned to sing the Cahn/Van Heusen ballad September Of My Years. Although the song’s poignancy needed no spelling out from a man who has outlived so many of his peers, its message was one of warm optimism, with the lyric “I find that I’m smiling gently as I near September.” Hendricks was not only smiling but bent double with laughter for much of Thursday’s show, and his rapt audience couldn’t help but do the same.