Megawatts has had a somewhat chequered past. Originally recorded in 1991, contractual difficulties made it necessary to release the record without Jeff "Tain" Watts’ name on the marquee. Consequently, the album never received the attention it deserved, and this is a shame because aside from being Watts’ first album as a leader, it represents one of only two trio albums that the late pianist Kenny Kirkland recorded. It would be worth the investment for that alone, but the truth is, in the post bop arena, this is as good as it gets.
What can one say about Watts? Among his generation he has developed into one of the hardest swinging drummers around. While he asserts his presence throughout the programme he is less direct and more subtle than, for example, Ralph Peterson. But like Peterson he has an innate ability to maintain groove while playing in a more open fashion; one would be hard pressed to find a backbeat, even on bassist Charles Fambrough’s more insistent “Opal Rose.” Watts also distinguishes himself with ears that make him sensitive to the subtlest variations on the part of his band mates; he pushes and pulls behind Kirkland on Keith Jarrett’s “Rainbow,” creating a delicate sense of tension.
Like Watts, Fambrough is a hard-swinging player, which is no surprise, given that he spent his formative years playing with the likes of McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey. A remarkable bassist with an oblique solo style, he is also a fine writer, with an angular harmonic sensibility, as evidenced on “Kasploosh.”
Kirkland was one of the most important pianists of his generation before his untimely death at the age of forty-three. His versatility and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of music saw him perform with artists as diverse as Miroslav Vitous, Branford Marsalis and Sting. Regardless of the context he always brought a strong sense of swing to the table. But while reactionaries like Wynton Marsalis, who rigidly asserts 4/4 swing as one of the fundamental definers of jazz, make it a restrictive element, Kirkland used it to liberate whatever he played, and combined it with a lyrical sensibility and virtuoso capability that, nevertheless, always kept the essence of the song in clear view. His performance on Megawatts constitutes some of his most exposed work, also representing some of his best ensemble playing.
Megawatts is one of those sessions that could easily have fallen through the cracks, but thankfully Sunnyside Records has seen fit to reissue it and remind us that the essence of true jazz is not just about swing; it is about commitment, interaction and dedication to the tune. Watts, Fambrough and Kirkland approach every piece on the album with reverence, coupled with an exploratory verve that makes this session well worth revisiting.
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