Norman Connors wears so many hats -- master percussionist, composer, producer -- that it's a relief to find he's abandoned a recent career emphasis on fashion for his six-night stay at Blues Alley. Although there's a bow to electricity (piano, bass and keyboards), the music is more akin to the powerhouse acoustics of the drummer's late-'60s stints with Jackie McLean and Pharaoh Sanders.
While Connors watched from the wings, a raucous fusion-funk "Mr. C" introduced most of the band: saxophonist Marion Meadows, guitarist Abdul Ali, bassist Pee Wee Ford and drummer Dave Spann (a second horn player and a vocalist were missing in transit last night). When Connors came on stage for "Only When She Cries," he immediately established the qualities that separate him from the pack. He's an aggressive drummer without being overbearing, clean power evidenced in a barrage of accents and rhythmic patterns on the cymbals.
Highlights of a somewhat anxious opening set included a somber, then racing, reading of John Coltrane's "Naima" and a straight-ahead version of Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly," both of which showcased Meadows' warm, bright tone on tenor and soprano saxes. The only weak moment came on Sanders' "The Creator Has a Master Plan," in which Connors achieved some aimless vocalese in trying to recreate Leon Thomas' startlingly original vocal lines. As a drummer, though, his taste is impeccable. He will be at Blues Alley with the full Starship Orchestra through Sunday.