The title of drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts new CD, Watts, isn't as superficial as it seems. While referring naturally to the leader, it also recalls the site of the apocalyptic riots in 1965, a neighborhood that produced jazz legend Charles Mingus. This is important because the tunes on the disc, written by Watts, are reverential, referential and have a satirical edge that echoes some of Mingus' finest moments.
This disc reteams Watts with his longtime partners in crime: sax titan Branford Marsalis, bassist Christian McBride and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Watts pays immediate homage to his Pittsburgh roots with "Return of the Jitney Man," setting a fierce pace for Marsalis' lightning quick tenor and Blanchard's vibrato rich trumpet. The blues "Brekky with Drekky," a tribute to the late Michael Brecker, has more solid tenor by Marsalis. Watts himself pays homage to Max Roach and Elvin Jones with the passionate drum solo "M'Buzai." The satirical tunes here are sharp without the messages overshadowing the music. The funky "Katrina James," for example, is James Brown meets Dixieland danceable protest music. McBride's gutbucket arco on the gospel-tinged Uncle Tom indictment, "Dancin' 4 Chicken," is brilliant. "The Devil's Ring Tone - The Movie" is a sneering indictment of the former American President, with a New Orleans funeral segment that is at once a joyful goodbye and another reference to the Katrina debacle.
This quartet played a set in front of a packed house at Le Poisson Rouge as the highlight of the NYC Winter Jazzfest in January, 2009. All of the members were present, with Marsalis billed as his alter ego, Prometheus Jenkins. Over two hours the band performed the entire album. With a Pittsburgh Steelers doll at hand for inspiration, Watts claimed that the band hadn't played together since recording the album but the chemistry was dynamite from the top. Marsalis blew tirelessly throughout the set and Blanchard, who flew in from New Orleans for the gig, actually stood on his tip-toes to coax high notes from his trumpet a few times. With the crowd energy behind them, the band's blistering live version of "Dancin' 4 Chicken" actually surpassed the studio take. The ballad "Owed..." is the only tune with a piano, with lyrical keyboard work by guest star Lawrence Fields, who played the song as gently as a lullaby, Marsalis accompanying on his typically lovely soprano. Watts playfully described "Dingle-Dangle" as "the lazy man's "Trinkle Tinkle" and his clever arrangement smoothed the brilliant corners of Monk's classic without diluting its character. This pride of once-young lions are all standard bearers now, ascending gradually toward elder statesmanship. For one very special night, it was exciting to hear them in their prime.
Return of the Jitney Man; Brekky With Drecky; Katrina James; Owed...;
Dancin' 4 Chicken; Wry Koln; Dingle
Jeff "Tain" Watts: drums; Branford Marsalis: saxophones; Terence
Blanchard: trumpet; Christian McBride: acoustic bass; Lawrence
Fields: piano (4).