Bobby Watson and UMKC Jazz Orchestra / UNT One O'Clock Lab Band / Kurt Rosenwinkel
Bobby Watson / UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra
The Gates BBQ Suite
When alto saxophonist Bobby Watson returned in 2001 to his native Kansas City area to assume the position as director of Jazz Studies at the University of MissouriKansas City, he mentioned to Ollie Gates, proprietor of the world-renowned Gates Barbeque, that he intended to write a large-scale work celebrating the city's signature delicacy while honoring his grandparents, Jesse and Daisy Wilkes, who owned a barbeque establishment in Merriam, Kansas. Although it took more than seven years to complete, the seven-movement Gates BBQ Suite at last had its premiere in December 2008 on the UMKC campus.
Much like the food after which it is named, the suite is tangy, flavorful, well-cooked, mouth-watering and sometimes greasy. The UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra does itself proud, mastering Watson's music as to the manor bornand the recorded sound is certified Grade A from start to finish. In searching for a parallel between Watson's paradigm and others, one's awareness is drawn to Gerald Wilson, the esteemed author of several expansive themes whose strength, style and spirit are quite similar to Watson's. If Wilson has indeed served as a role model (the comparison is irresistible but unproven), such a choice is beyond any question exemplary.
As to the suite itself, Watson opens in an hospitable frame of mind with "May I Help You?," the phrase that visitors hear the moment they enter the Gates emporium. After an opening fanfare, trumpeter Hermon Mehari enhances the convivial mood, as visitors wait for the Gates specialty, "Beef on a Bun," a zesty entrée tenderly garnished by guitarist Nick Grinlinton and tenors William Sanders and Steven Lambert. Watson takes the first of his three alto solos on the well-grooved "Heavy on the Sauce!," sharing space with trombonist Ben Saylor, before owner Ollie Gates has his moment on the buoyant "Blues for Ollie" (agile solos by trumpeter John Merlitz, alto Michael Shults, pianist Will Crain, bassist Ben Leifer and drummer Ryan Lee).
Many a celebrity including past presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton have dined on "The Presidents' Tray," a tasty combination platter that consists of a sampling of all the Gates' barbeque smoked meats. The "smokin'" in this case is imparted courtesy of alto Shults and percussionists Pablo Sanheuza, Pat Conway and Andres Ramirez. Watson's occasional disappointment on arriving late and finding his favorite barbeque restaurant closed is expressed in the plaintive "One Minute Too Late!," which precedes "Wilkes' BBQ," a funky, finger-lickin' salute to his grandparents that ends the suite and the album.
Setting aside for a moment the thematic nature of Watson's suite, it stands well on its own simply as invigorating, well-designed big-band jazz of the highest order. Watson deserves admiration for having written the Gates BBQ Suite, the UMKC Jazz Orchestra for enabling it to come to life in such exquisite sonic detail.
University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band
North Texas Jazz
There really should be a law against college-level jazz ensembles playing as flawlessly as the North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band has been since . . . well, since most people can remember, and no doubt long before that. Without such a law, how is it possible to offer any persuasive criticism, or for that matter, single out these young lions from their elders who are playing professionally? There simply aren't enough audible grounds on Lab 2010, the band's second recording under its new director, Steve Wiest, to validate either task.
Further to the point, not only do Weist's students perform without blemish, the undergrads wrote three of the album's nine numbers, arranged Dave Holland's "Prime Directive" and adapted Bart Howard's "Fly Me to the Moon" for the larger ensemble from a chart written for vocalist Tierney Sutton's quartet. Kevin Swaim composed "House of Cards" and "The Oracle," while Dave Richards (who scored "Fly Me to the Moon") provided the high-stepping finale, "Swordfight." Wiest, whose "Ice-Nine" was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009, composed the Middle Eastern-flavored "New Cydonia," former director Neil Slater weighed in with the melodious "Not Yet," and Fred Sturm, a UNT alumnus who is director of Jazz Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, arranged Steely Dan's bluesy "Pretzel Logic." Completing the program is trombonist Slide Hampton's buoyant salute to one of the country's iconic Jazz festivals, "Newport." Oh, and Josh Dresser arranged "Prime Directive."