Prominent politicians, a rap star and less conspicuous fans of elegant funk filled the Blue Room for two shows by Roy Ayers on Friday.
Ayers is a vibraphonist and bandleader best known for his 1976 hit “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” After the release of a few fine soul-jazz albums in the 1960s, Ayers’ style gradually shifted away from improvised music. By the mid-1970s, Ayers had become a funk luminary with jazz chops rather than a jazz artist with a handful of crossover hits.
Kansas City’s U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, were among the dignitaries at the first Ayers show. In his brief remarks about Kansas City’s jazz heritage, Cleaver said that “we want everyone around the world to envy us.”
Anyone who couldn’t acquire a ticket to either of the sold-out concerts had reason to be jealous. By playing only four selections in 50 minutes during the first show, Ayers immersed the audience in the extended grooves that are the defining trait of his buoyant form of R&B.
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A searing reading of “We Live In Brooklyn, Baby” reflected the social consciousness that informs much of Ayers’ most popular work. Members of the audience shouted in affirmation as Ayers chanted, “Our time is now.”
Ayers issued orders to his four-piece backing band like a benevolent dictator. Aside from his longtime hype man and backing vocalist, John Pressley, the musicians were stalwarts of the Kansas City scene. Keyboardist Everett Freeman performed as if he’d been part of Ayers’ band for years. The electric bassist DeAndre Manning is a powerful soloist. Drummer Kevin “Church Boy” Johnson received occasional fist bumps of approval from Ayers.
In spite of repeating four of the same selections, the second show possessed a far less jubilant tone. Ayers exuberantly bellowed that “skin turns brown in the sunshine” during the initial reading of “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” The subsequent version was much cloudier.
Ayers rapped with admirable flow on “Evolution.” Tyler, the Creator, the hip-hop celebrity who headlined at the Arvest Bank Theater at the Midland on Friday, was among the fans who applauded Ayers’ versatility.
Members of the audience were saddened but not despondent when Pressley informed them of the death of Muhammad Ali. Basking in the vital music of a living legend took much of the sting out of the news.
First show: Spirit of Doo Do; Everybody Loves the Sunshine; We Live In Brooklyn, Baby; Running Away
Second show: Spirit of Doo Do; Everybody Loves the Sunshine; We Live In Brooklyn, Baby; Running Away; Searching; Evolution; Sweet Tears; Give It To Me Baby