In the mid 80s a single record got me hooked on straight-ahead jazz, and that record was Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes from the Underground. The powerhouse drumming of Jeff "Tain" Watts was one of the elements that floored me. Watts remains a pillar of the current scene, playing in Branford Marsalis’s brilliant quartet and doing fine work for Michael Brecker, Kenny Garrett, Dave Holland, and others. Citizen Tain is his debut as a leader.
The disc opens with "The Impaler." The head sounds uncannily like vintage Blue Note. Wynton and Branford play the fast, twisting melody with a precision that recalls Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson on In ’n’ Out. Once the solos kick in, "The Impaler" could almost be a track on Black Codes. Wynton, who plays only on the first and last cuts, breathes fire—his solo is practically worth the price of admission. He hands the baton to Branford, who solos fiercely on tenor as the band temporarily suspends the form, vamping modally over one of those wild, Tainish bash-out grooves. When the tension’s about ready to boil over, the group reenters the form and reverts back to mad swing. Branford finishes his say and then Kenny Kirkland takes over on piano. Yes, this is the sound that converted me. When you think about it, though, it’s no surprise that this track sounds so much like Wynton’s old quintet. It is Wynton’s old quintet. And it’s marvelous to hear.
Tain’s agenda, however, is not a trip down Marsalis memory lane. Citizen Tain is supposed to highlight the drummer’s fledgling compositional abilities. All tracks but one are Tain originals. In addition to "The Impaler," four others are absolutely stunning. "Attainment," a quartet piece featuring Branford, suggests "Alabama"-era Coltrane but its surprising cadences and unpredictable form transport it into wholly new territory. "Pools of Amber" is a Kirkland trio feature with gorgeous changes and motifs. "Wry Köln," another quartet number, melds burning post-bop and free jazz in ingenious ways, with turn-on-a-dime tempo and feel changes and a "wry" rubato interlude that sounds like a maudlin moment in a silent film score. (Bassist Eric Revis replaces Reginald Veal for this one track.) And the ambitious yet brief "Destruction and Rebirth Suite" begins with a spooky "MLK Shake-Up Call" and segues into a beautiful ballad called "Paen," which features Tain on vibes.
The remaining tracks feature some great playing but don’t rise to the same level as compositions. "Muphkin Man" is a Monk-inspired piano trio feature with excellent soloing by Kirkland, Veal, and Tain. "Blutain, Jr." and "Bigtain’s Blue Adventure" are variations on the same blues theme—one that appeared a couple of years ago on Branford’s The Dark Keys. Altoist Kenny Garrett makes an appearance on "Sigmund Groid," which sounds more like a Kenny Garrett tune than a Tain tune. This is a telling example of how Tain's voice at times is too similar to the voices of the various heavyweight leaders for whom he has worked. Another example is "Trieste"; a far better performance of this great Paul Motian composition appears on Branford’s latest CD, Requiem. Tain could have chosen a tune that Branford hasn’t already recorded.
On the whole, then, a tad uneven but still remarkable. Admirers of the late, great Kenny Kirkland will certainly be gratified. And when the CD stops spinning, listeners will be licking their chops in anticipation of their next helping of Tain originals.