Pee Wee Ellis & Fred Wesley: Ronnie Scott’s

I missed too many opportunities to see James Brown perform live. I thought that there would always be a next time. As we know, that opportunity has gone. So when the former JB stalwarts, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis engagement at Ronnie Scott’s was announced, I pounced for tickets.

I was pondering how good a gig it would be, especially as they were being backed by a funk allstar band from the UK. I needn’t have worried. Although both Ellis and Wesley sit down when they are performing these days, they remain capable of hosting a gripping show Their UK band was made up of musicians of the calibre of Tony Remy (guitar), Mark Mondesir (drums), Laurence Cottle (bass), Dan Moore (keyboards). A second reedsman added back-up tenor sax (sorry I didn’t catch his name- but I believe he was the singer’s cousin). The McKelle’s must be a fine musical family and we will be returning to vocaliste Robin McKelle’s presently.

Opening with a couple of instrumentals to settle the band in, the audience soon became aware of how well this lineup could play. Fred Wesley then introduced a special guest from one of his several hometowns, Rochester, New York State, to help out on the vocals.

I don’t know what your view of jazz vocalists is? I’m not normally enamoured, having heard a few too many sultry Sarah, siren of Salisbury types trying to woo an audience with their take on a seeming random selection from the Great American Songbook (no disrespect to anyone who is actually called Sarah, comes from Salisbury and sings a bit, by the way). Every so often somebody surprises but it is so rare hear a singer who turns out to be even halfway on the uphill road to goodville.

Robin McKelle has been gifted with an amazing voice, which became clear from the start of Cold Sweat. We were then invited to Bop to The Boogie before being advised that Robin, Fred, Pee Wee and co were going to Move to The Outskirts of Town. Even Bexley, Uxbridge, Purley or Barking would become bearable if this gang moved there as a domestic unit, especially if Ray Charles, who wrote this classic, lived round the corner too.

It was time for a mid-performance break and while you re-charge your drink or make a cuppa, you can listen to a version of FW PWE and Robin performing Cold Sweat in Paris a couple of years ago. This is lifted from YouTube to give you, dear readers, some idea of their excellence:-

Click on or touch the arrow to play the YouTube film.

After the break the band showed they could swing and played the sort of Benny Carter/Coleman Hawkins number that was probably playing in the background when PWE and Fred were growing up. It was time for Fred to tell us about Breaking Bread cooked in grease, on a wood stove, in a great big skillet (to paraphrase the chorus), which sounded like it would taste even better than Ronnie Scott’s in-house burger, if that could be imagined.

Robin explained that she was a pretty fair cook, that her parents had a wood stove and that if she had the ingredients she would rustle something up. This led into her tribute to Etta James. Her take on I’d Rather Go blind, which sounded even better at this Thursday night at Ronnie’s, than on the film that which you can view next. I’ll shout it loud! Robin McKelle is a world-class talent, of whom a great deal more will be heard.

A standing ovation from the audience was entirely merited.

Earlier this week I’d pulled out my aged copy of The JB’s Pass The Peas and I was delighted when the band covered that, followed by Chicken, written by Fred Wesley but turned into a real moneymaker by Jaco Pastorious. At some stage we went to a funky House Party, of the finest kind. Pee Wee then explained how his dear departed friend, Eddie Harris owed him a few quid. He soon cashed in with a Harris number, drawing repayment, with compound interest, from the bank with Freedom Jazz Dance inscribed of over the door. He certainly showed great fluency and dexterity as he ran through the theme. Unlike far too many tenor sax players, PWE can hit those lower register bass notes on the nail, every time. Fred Wesley can also play his trombone a little bit too.

The set closed with a fine, slowed down version of I Feel Good. If James Brown, himself, could have heard this he would have been getting on the good foot with us.

I’m glad I rewarded The Crusaders with a cautious 7/10 before Christmas, because this set was a notch up on that one, meriting a well-deserved 8/10.

The midnight train to the NorthWest has nearly reached its destination on another Friday night and with that, here’s another post for you.

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