On the Buddy Rich
band's album Big Swing Face
(circa 1967), Ernie Watts
unleashes a blazing alto sax solo on the title track that is guaranteed to send chills up and down the spine and leave listeners wondering, "How did he do that?" Now, almost half a century later, the seventy-year-old Watts continues to weave those mind-bending solos, this time on tenor sax, on Wheel of Time,
a quartet date whose nine selections include four written by the leader himself and one each by the other members of the group.
If time has tempered Watts' spirit or abraded his technical skills, it's not apparent here. He plays much as he has since his tenure with Rich or, later, bassist Charlie Haden
's celebrated Quartet West, which Watts joined as a founding member in 1986. To erase any doubt of that, listen to Watts' aptly named "Velocity" or Joe Henderson
's aggressive "Inner Urge." This is Watts' working quartet, European version, with whom he has been playing for more than fifteen years (Wheel of Time
was recorded in Darmstadt, Germany). Unsheathing their talents while covering Watts' back are pianist Christof Saenger
(versatile), bassist Rudi Engel
(unwavering) and drummer Heinrich Koebberling
Saenger wrote the lyrical, Latin-flavored "L'Agua Azul," Engel the easygoing "Andi's Blues," Koebberling the undulating "You and You." Completing the program are Watts' "Letter from Home," "A Distant Light" and "Wheel of Time" (the last an earnest tribute to friend and colleague Haden who died in July 2014) and Canadian pianist Adrean Farrugia
's light-hearted calypso, "Goose Dance." Engel delivers an engaging solo on "Wheel," as he does on ""A Distant Light" and "Andi's Blues." Koebberling flexes his chops on "Inner Urge," and as for Saenger, he shines whenever his impressive talents are required, as they are on most numbers.
Even so, it is Watts on whose shoulders the album essentially is borne, and they are brawny shoulders indeed. After more than half a century of sharp and spirited blowing, the maestro shows no sign that he is easing back on the throttle. In other words, Wheel of Time
is vintage Watts, moderated only by wisdom and experience.