Bobby Watson's Kansas City Big Band: Part 1-2

Christopher Burnett By

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By Chris Burnett

The subject of this particular musing is the extraordinary musician, Bobby Watson. He is indeed one among the premiere American musicians and jazz educators today. His return to the Kansas City area to teach the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music also emphasizes Professor Watson's noble commitment to share his vast knowledge and experience with future generations of jazz musicians.

Yes, Bobby Watson has formed a Big Band from among the best musicians in Kansas City. The significance is relevant in several ways. First, as a gifted composer and arranger (his degree and major at the University of Miami was composition), the new big band provides a vehicle for some of his works to be performed in public. Next, Watson has comprised the band of local artists. Some of these other quality artists who are based out of Kansas City, may receive some well-deserved wider recognition as a result of being heard on this band. And finally, the addition of another professional big band to the list of those already based here in the Midwest is a good sign of the state of the art.

I am personally looking forward to their performance with Patti Austin in Kansas City at the Gem Theatre on Saturday, October 18. Again, a big "THANKS" to Bobby for making time for this two-part article. Part 1 will introduce you to Bobby Watson by way of his biographical narrative. Part 2 is the interview discussion with Bobby about the new big band in Kansas City.

All About Bobby Watson

One of the pre-eminent players of his generation, alto saxophonist-composer Bobby Watson has accumulated an impressive body of work since the early '80s that showcases his undeniable individuality as an artist. Teaming remarkable Bird-like facility and bristling energy with an inherent soulful quality that comes directly out of the church, Watson's recorded output to date covers a wide spectrum of expression in a variety of settings from solo sax to big band as well as a string of adventurous projects with his band Horizon (a quintet he co-led in the '90s with drummer Victor Lewis) and the 29th Street Saxophone Quartet.

Live & Learn

Listen to or samples HERE !

Watson's latest as a leader, Live & Learn, shows the saxophonist probing and pushing the envelope on surging numbers like "Thank You" and "River Jordan" while also delving deeply into his churchy roots with sanctified zeal on the contemporary gospel number "We Fall Down". Accompanied by Orrin Evans on piano, Gregg Skaff on guitar, Montez Coleman on drums and Curtis Lundy on bass, he adopts a decidedly vocal approach to his horn on the soothing title track. As he says of that anthemic piece, "It's sort of a reflection of life. That's what we all have to do. We have to live and learn in order to grow, in order to survive. I think that's the key to what life is about...make mistakes, live and learn. The piece itself comes in layers. The bass part starts with its own pattern and then the piano comes in and states a theme. But when you think you've got the melody then the guitar comes in with another melody. And then the final melody comes in with the saxophone. Basically, I wanted it to progress with every part that came in as complete unto itself. Those individual melodies represent the layers of experience and knowledge. When you think you've heard it all or know it all, there's always more. And that's how that tune feels to me."

Elsewhere on Live & Learn, Bobby embraces the warm heartland harmonies of his own midwestern upbringing on "Landmarks Lost" (his ode to the Twin Towers) and digs into the earthy funk anthem "Stanky P" (written by his wife Pam) with nasty impunity. His intimate duet with guitarist Skaff on the melancholy "Postlude' is tender interlude while the blithely swinging "Faith In Action" is part of an ambitious commissioned work ("The Afroism Suite") that Watson composed in 1994 and has performed in Vienna and Glasgow, Scotland. "That was written for Art Blakey," says the former Jazz Messenger of his onetime mentor. "I wrote pieces for different people on that suite and that was my Art Blakey musical statement because to me he personifies faith in action. And it's also in 3/4 because Art loved to play in three." (That Watson composition was previously recorded on John Hicks' 1996 Landmark album, A Piece For My Peace).

Palmetto Records

Another highlight on Watson's Palmetto Records debut is his unique 12/8 interpretation of "I've Gotta Be Me," in which he puts his personalized stamp on that Sammy Davis Jr. signature piece. As Bobby explains, "I've always enjoyed Sammy Davis singing it ever since I was a young man and it has sort of become my credo: 'How can I be right for somebody else if I'm not right for me?' That's a powerful statement. So I've been working on that song for a couple years off and on, trying to get it into my frame of reference by employing my harmonies and my feeling. It's my personal statement for me: I gotta be me, I love being Bobby Watson, I don't look to anybody else or what anybody else is doing, I'm happy with myself and am carrying on."

Live & Learn also rekindles Watson's longstanding musical relationship with bassist Curtis Lundy, with whom he co-led a band in the early '80s. "Curtis and I have been together for about 30 years," says Bobby. "We did some recordings together on the label we formed in 1983 called New Note, which was kind of an umbrella operation for a number of musicians on the scene at the time. Curtis and I co-led a band back then and have done other projects together for (the Italian label) Red Records. I know his sound and he knows what I want musically." (The two appeared together on Watson's previous release, the 1999 Quiet As Its Kept for Red Records).

A more recent musical hookup is with guitarist Gregg Skaff, who has a prominent role on Live & Learn. "I've been going to a guitar-saxophone frontline on my last couple of projects and Gregg is the guy I call on for that. I want to have a frontline where I'm free to express myself and Gregg is free to express himself and create parts against what I'm doing. So it's more of a counterpoint approach to the frontline. There's a few places were we come together and play unisons, like on 'Stanky P' and also on 'Why Not,' But on tunes like 'I Gotta Be Me,' 'River Jordan' and 'Faith In Action,' Gregg is free to play another line against me. So I can play it different every time and so can he. And the more we play it, we'll find more things."

Watson first worked with guitarist Skaff on a 1995 recording for the Kokopelli label called Urban Renewal. "That one was more electric so he had all kinds of effects and sounds and different guitars to use. And he being such a guitar aficionado, not just being stuck in one hollow-body kind of jazz sound, impressed me. So whatever I need from guitar I know I can get it from him, like the acoustic guitar he plays on 'Landmarks Lost' or some of the Freddie Green type rhythm guitar things he does on this new recording. Gregg is very versatile and very well listened across the board aside from just jazz, which I like about him. He knows all the guitar pop stuff that's been going on from Jimi Hendrix to the present."

Live & Learn carries an exhilarating message that is meant to move and uplift listeners in a positive way. "I'm not interested in this notion of just making another jazz record to show how hot you are or how innovative you are," says Watson. "Virtuosity wasn't my main intent here. The main intent was to deliver the melodies as a singer would and to use those vehicles as a springboard into my style. It's music for people to listen to and reflect on and hopefully make them reminisce and remember things in their lives."

"I'm hoping it'll strike that chord because a lot of music that's out there today sounds like people have things to prove. And I figure at this point in my career I don't have anything to prove, really. I'm happy within myself and I just want a nice vehicle for expressing myself and connecting with people in that tradition of the great records I've listened to all my life like Art Blakey's Free For All, which I put on in the morning to get going or Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, which I put on at night to chill out. In the old country, Africa, music has a function in society. And I've been very interested in that aspect of music instead of just making another jazz record to show how hot you are or how innovative you are."

Some Career Highlights

Watson has been showcasing his considerable talents since his debut as a leader, 1977's E.T.A. on the Pye label. Over the course of the subsequent 25 years he has amassed a discography that numbers over 100 recordings, including sideman appearances with the likes of Art Blakey, Sam Rivers, George Coleman, Lou Rawls, Rufus & Chaka Khan, Maynard Ferguson, Carmen Lundy, Bob Belden, John Hicks, Joe Williams and Wynton Marsalis as well as his 26 releases as a leader.

Born in Lawrence, Kansas on August 23, 1953, began by playing clarinet in the church before switching to the alto sax at age 13. He began arranging and composing for school bands and later studied formally at the University of Miami. Upon graduating in 1975, Watson moved to New York and joined the ranks of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers from 1977-81, ultimately becoming musical director for the group. Along the way he worked with such jazz icons as drummers Panama Francis, Max Roach, Charlie Persip and Louis Hayes as well as saxophonists George Coleman and Sam Rivers.

Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers

Bill Pierce, Wynton Marsalis, and Bobby Watson

In the 1980s Watson co-led groups with Curtis Lundy and also founded the highly acclaimed 29th Street Saxophone Quartet with altoist Ed Jackson, tenorist Rich Rothenberg and baritonist Jim Hartog. In association with drummer Victor Lewis, Watson launched the hard boppish quintet Horizon while also leading the High Court of Swing, a tribute to the music of influential alto saxophonist and key Ellington soloist Johnny Hodges (documented on his 1987 New Note/Evidence release, Year Of The Rabbit).

Projects, Research and Teaching

Following his three recordings as a leader for the Blue Note label — 1988's No Question About It , 1990's The Inventor and 1991's Post-Motown Bop , Watson experienced a very fertile period in the early '90s with Columbia, releasing Present Tense in 1991, his acclaimed big band project Tailor Made in 1992 and Midwest Shuffle in 1993. Subsequent recordings include 1995's Urban Renewal on Kokopelli, 1999's Quiet As Its Kept on Red Records, 2000's Live at Someday in Tokyo on Red and now Live & Learn on Palmetto.

Bobby Watson

Professor of Jazz Studies

University of Missouri-Kansas City

In addition to his work as a performer and composer, Bobby has also produced recordings for young jazz musicians, including trumpeter Ryan Kisor and tenor saxophonist David Sanchez. He also composed original music for Robert DeNiro's directorial debut film, "A Bronx Tale." In 2000 Watson was awarded the first "William and Mary Grant, Missouri Professor of Jazz" endowed professorship in jazz. He currently serves as the director of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

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