Setting up Flying Dolphin Records in 2004 has given tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts wings. After 35 years calling on an ever-changing array of some of the greatest names in jazz to play on his records, Watts has now settled into two quartets: his American and European groups. The continuity of these ensembles and the complete artistic freedom that he's wrestled free have resulted in some of his strongest recordings. Four Plus Four
(Flying Dolphin Records, 2009), To the Point-Live at the Jazz Bakery
(Flying Dolphin Records, 2008), Spirit Song
(Flying Dolphin Records, 2005), and Analog Man
(Flying Dolphin Records, 2007)winner of the Independent Music Award
for Best Jazz Albumshow Watts to be in a very good place artistically, writing and playing better than ever. Oasis
- continues the run of fine form.
Drummer Heinrich Koebberling's "Konbawna" is a lyrical limbering-up exercise which features brief but impressive solos from bassist Rudi Engel and pianist Christof Saenger. Saenger, in turn, contributes the elegant "Palmito," featuring a fired-up Watts. After 13 years together, there is a generosity in the quartet's writing process, and the personalities of all four members are prominent throughout. One of two co-written by longtime collaborator, pianist Jeremy Monteiro
, the title track shows the influence of tenorist John Coltrane
with its brooding, spiritual intro. This gripping slow burner, with its suggestive Arabic underbelly, takes a number of deft turns, with Watts at his most expressive; whether stating the melody or unleashing tumultuous, tumbling lines which rattle the bones, the saxophonist's sincerity is powerful.
Watts' innate feel for a ballad finds expression in Will Jennings/Joe Sample
's "One Day I'll Fly Away," and Johnny Mandel
's "You Are There." These beautiful tunes bring Saenger and Watts together into the spotlight, and their tender exchanges are softly voiced and full of warmth and lyricism. The Beatles
' classic "Blackbird" is given a robust workout, Watts' burly tone steering the quartet away from the initial melody into more exploratory terrain, with the quartet shifting gears effortlessly. Watts signs off with a full-throated, honking cadenza, which typifies his original approach to this much-covered tune.
Coltrane's "Crescent" swings beautifully, Saenger laying down the marker with an extended solo of great fluidity before Watts replies with instant intensity, stretching himself in a searching, soaring run. Coltrane has long provided Watts with inspiration, but like another great tenorist, Charles Lloyd
, Watts draws from Coltrane's spirit while maintaining his own, very personal identity. Soulfulness and blues characterize Watts' playing, and this is also heard on Watts and Monteiro's lovely "Twilight Walt"; even when mapping the contours of a simple melody, Watts commands attention.
Another Watts original, "Bass Geige" swings hard, with all four musicians displaying their fine wares. Dizzy Gillespie
bop classic, "Shaw Nuff," takes the quartet out on a high, with Saenger and Watts locking horns in thrilling foot-to-the-floor unison lines. With Oasis
Watts confirmsas if confirmation were neededthat he is one of the greatest living tenor saxophonists at the top of his game. A joy from start to finish.