KSDS Jazz 88 Ocean Beach Music and Arts Festival
Ernie Watts is one of the most versatile saxophonists in history and has straddled two seemingly separate careers for ages. On one hand he's got the whole studio sideman thing going. He's played on thousands of sessions with everyone from Carole King to Frank Zappa. He has toured with Oliver Nelson and the Rolling Stones. On the other side: his work as a highly disciplined and creative keeper of the post-John Coltrane flame; both in his work with his own quartet and with bassist Charlie Haden's Quartet West.
On this performance, he was assisted by his extremely tight, veteran working group. On piano was the able Andy Langham, who is able to evoke the spirit of McCoy Tyner, while maintaining his own identity; on bass: Bruce Lettwho was very strong and meaty with his support, and finally Bob Leatherbarrow on drums who knows how to mix things up, constantly upping the ante when Watts was soloing.
The concert began with "To The Point" an intricate, modern tune stylistically set somewhere between hard-bop and free-bop. After the knotty head, (which featured some intense trading of "fours" with Leatherbarrow), Watts took flight with a keening, swirling tenor solo, building to a climax with altisimo register squealing. At this point the piano and bass dropped out so that Watts and Leatherbarrow could engage in some feverish tenor/drum dialogue a la 'Trane and Elvin.' By the time the tune endedWatts "owned" the audience.
After such an impressive, volcanic beginning, Watts showed a completely different (yet no less profound) side of himself. He picked up an end-blown wooden flute, and after a captivating solo cadenza, launched into his original, "Spirit Song" which may have been the highlight of the festival. "Spirit Song" captured the whole gamut of human emotions, from somber to joyful. Watts' work with the wooden, reverb-drenched flute was incredible: it soared, it cried out, he caressed it gently and teased bent notes that drifted into the heavens. Next, Watts shifted gears dramatically again with an amazing arrangement of the Dizzy Gillespie be-bop classic, "Shaw 'Nuff." This extremely up-tempo treatment featured long, spirited baroque exchanges between Langham (who might not be a household namebut is a remarkable pianist nonetheless) and Watts. It sounded like Bach on steroids. They then seamlessly "shape-shifted" into the jagged, intricate unison head, making the sixty year old tune sound as relevant as tomorrow. Thus far, every single Watts performance had brought the house down. Boisterous applause and catcalls followed every song. The tall tenor man chose his own "Reaching Up" a fast Latin-tinged tune from his album of the same name Reaching Up (JVC, 1994) as his last piece. A final round of inspired solos from all, especially Leatherbarrow, who's taut drum explosions were written into the tune, (The album version featured Jack DeJohnette). Watts graciously accepted the long, spirited ovation he received, re-introducing the members of his quartet, and afterward chatted with audience members and signed autographs.
E.S.P. is an excellent San Diego collective who gather to explore the music of Miles Davis. As implied in the name, most (but not all) of their repertoire culls from various albums by the famous mid-sixties quintet. All of the members lead, or are featured in other bands in the area. They've been doing this for over thirty years. The group consists of Mitch Manker: trumpet; Bob Campbell: saxophone; Lynn Willard: piano; Gary Nieves: drums; and the newest member, Rob Thorsen:double bass.
Their set at local nightclub The Harp, began with a rendition of the seldom performed, "In A Silent Way" by Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul. An inspired, "out-of-the-box" choice as hardly anyone covers this tune. That they were able to do so faithfullywhile still injecting their individual personalities was a portent of things to come. Next up was "Code Blue" an original by tenor saxophonist Bob Campbell. This piece seemed more drawn from Miles' '80s ensembles as it had a serious, funk element to it. Following was the Ron Carter penned sixties classic "81." Here, and elsewhere, bassist Thorsen played an amazing approximation of Carter's muse without ever aping him. This was true of all the members of the quintet. As a repertory band, there's an expectation of some approximation of the original recordingsyet at the same time you want to hear the musicians play themselves. This, E.S.P. accomplishes admirably. Next, the band performed their namesake, "E.S.P." with a startling alacrity. Even the often taciturn Davis might have smiled at this one. Trumpeter Manker has that "broken-note" Miles trick down, as well as some audibly apparent Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard moves. Tenor man Campbell utilized some of Wayne Shorter's oblique phrasing, but did so in an entirely original way. Miles Davis' music from any period is well worth investigating, hat's off to E.S.P. for doing it with such integrity.