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Kind of Blue Turns 50: Bobby Watson Quartet at the Kimmel Center


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Bobby Watson plays a richly modulated, soulful but virtuosic alto sax, moving around the keys with alacrity and altering tonal qualities in nuanced ways with a phenomenal embouchure.
Bobby Watson Quartet
Jazz Up Close: Kind of Blue Turns 50
Honoring Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane, Saxophones
Kimmel Center Perelman Theater

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

March 28, 2009

The great Bobby Watson, still in "mid-life" at age 53, is a seasoned "heavy" on the alto sax whose playing echoes saxophone greats from Phil Woods to Cannonball Adderley, as well as tenor titans Dexter Gordon to Sonny Rollins, yet with his own incomparable virtuosity. Something must have been in the air at the Kimmel Center, because he was even better than when I heard him in New York at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in 2005. Maybe it was the group. Maybe it was the acoustics and sound system. Maybe it was his frame of mind. Whatever it was, he swung like a newly crowned champion, and his sound was at its peak. As this writer noted in his 2005 review:

"Bobby Watson plays a richly modulated, soulful but virtuosic alto sax, moving around the keys with alacrity and altering tonal qualities in nuanced ways with a phenomenal embouchure. He plays very intensely, reflecting his Kansas City origins while moving forward through all the bebop and mainstream trends while maintaining his own consistent style."

This description applied equally well to Watson's debut at the Kimmel Center. Jazz at its very best has a way of embodying the traditions while at the same time courting the novel and new, and then there's an intangible quality of spontaneous energy that can sometimes pour from the instrument and the group. This concert had all of that "right stuff," and Watson's sound eschewed the nasal quality that some players took from Coltrane in his weaker moments, rather achieving a lyrical quality and richness that is what a saxophone should sound like.

The first set began with a bebop rendition of Duke Pearson's classic "Jeanine," a standard frequently performed by one of the night's "honorees," Cannonball Adderley. Watson's bright and rich sonority was immediately noticeable and was followed by a high-energy piano solo by Larry Willis, with an echo of Count Basie in both his style and his out-extended fingers that made him look a bit like Basie at the keyboard. This number was followed by a nod to the Philly bartender "Freddie Freeloader" (a tune from Kind of Blue, Columbia, 1959) in a cool stride version. For some reason, Watson got off to an uncomfortable start on this one, but eventually found his groove. Curtis Lundy then performed a "freeloading" bass solo, creating a surrealistic image of a "cheapster." (Lundy is a superb, creative bassist who should be better known and appears on Watson's latest CD for Palmetto Records, From the Heart (2008), which Watson graciously autographed for buyers after the show.) A superb cadenza by Watson segued into double time, where Watson showed incomparable rapidity and agility.

Again honoring Miles Davis' groundbreaking recording, Bill Evans' "Blue in Green" was taken at tempo that was laid back even for this contemplative ballad, bringing out Evans' own ability to evoke haunting moods when he played. The set ended with "Lazy Bird" from Blue Trane (Blue Note, 1957), re-written as "E.T.A." for the Jazz Messengers by Watson. Watson's somewhat idiosyncratic revision nevertheless strongly evoked Trane himself by virtue of the tonal intervals that became known as "Coltrane changes."

A post-intermission conversation with the musicians was competently led by Tom Warner, the new Kimmel VP of Programming, who recently replaced his former boss and mentor, Mervon Mehta, when the latter took a step up to the job of head honcho at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (Toronto jazz fans, be on the lookout for what Mehta has planned there!). Bobby Watson, Danilo Perez (the curator of the series), and Larry Willis engaged in a trialogue about the meaning and significance of the album to whom the series is dedicated. Perez pointed out the accessibility and popularity of this great recording, while Watson emphasized how Davis allowed for individuality of style among the ensemble. The highlight of the discussion, however, was Willis' extended diatribe on how the ground-breaking album impacted on him and his cohorts, exclaiming, "It changed my life!" Listening to that recording was what convinced him to become a jazz musician.

The second set commenced with "Autumn Leaves," Watson noting that the song constituted "one of my favorite Adderly moments" and showing how he (Watson) can shift effortlessly between rapid runs and lyrical reflections. Next came the Coltrane tune "Cousin Mary," named after Trane's beloved family member who still today is a strong supporter of jazz in Philadelphia and at the Cape May Jazz Festival. The Coltrane sound emerged in a uniquely transformed way in Watson's playing here. He then introduced "Love Remains," a beautiful ballad written by him and his wife, Pamela, and which has become somewhat of his signature tune ever since it appeared on the classic 1986 album by the same name. The final piece was "Flamenco Sketches," from Kind of Blue, in which Watson performed a beautiful impressionist solo that no doubt would have pleased Miles Davis just as the latter awed audiences when he played "My Funny Valentine" with haunting beauty and originality.

It was striking that all of the songs in the second set were ballads, in contrast to the common practice of building up the swing aspect to a rapid and frenzied finish. As if to make amends for that change, the group responded to a standing ovation by coming back for a stunning encore which began slowly with a saxophone cadenza followed by a 3/4 time jam that went to the high end of the Richter Scale and shook the house, fueled by Eric Kennedy's powerhouse drumming. Kennedy had trouble finding his groove at the beginning of the concert, but in time found his way to true form, reminiscent of Art Blakey's driving rhythm, and leaving the audience thrilled, not unlike the legendary leader of the Jazz Messengers, with whom Watson played for a number of years—a stint that inspired the latter's driving spirit.

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