Jazz Album of the Week: Bobby Watson’s New Quintet and Old-School Mantra, Keys to Keepin’ It Real

Dec 26, 2020

December 28, 2020. Chasing stardom is a young man’s game. At 66, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson will tell you he’s much more interested in the zero-pretense ethos that doubles as the title of his new album.

“After you’ve lived a certain period of time you want to try to be yourself. You don’t want to BS people,” Watson said in Keepin’ It Real’s press release. “You become more committed to…the way you treat your band…what you stand for as a person.”

Watson learned the mechanics of building a band up and breaking it down before things got stale from the greatest to ever do it, Art Blakey. The Jazz Messengers’ music director from 1977 to 1981, Watson recorded over a dozen records with Blakey. The experience gave Watson heightened insight into knowing what’s best for the individual and also the collective. That’s why, for Keepin’ It Real, Watson’s re-tooled the personnel of the Horizon quintet he’s led since the late ’80s.

“The original Horizon had run its course,” said Watson, explaining the shake-up. “That’s why I wanted to start fresh, with new music, new personnel, fresh blood, and new energy.”

Aside from Watson and Horizon’s founding bassist, Curtis Lundy, everyone else is new. Goodbye, old Horizon. Hello, New Horizon.

Joining Lundy in the rhythm section are a pair of Victors, Jones (drums) and Gould (piano). Jones is hard-driving, always precise, and light when he needs to be, a perfect Blakey-style drummer. Gould, meanwhile, is as stylistically versatile as young pianists come and has played under some of Blakey’s most celebrated disciples—Ralph Peterson, Wallace Roney, Donald Harrison, and now Watson.

We first encounter one of the many shades of Gould on the album’s title track, a Watson original that speaks to Gould’s ability to play in the gospel-drenched blues of Zawinul (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”) and Kenny Kirkland (“Mo Better Blues”).

Of course, the immortal you’d expect to be invoked most frequently here is Blakey, and Watson does not disappoint there either. On former Messenger Jackie McLean’s “Condition Blue,” Watson and trumpeter Josh Evans, a McLean protégé, strike that Blakean hard-bop balance between clever gamesmanship and harmony.

If you’re looking for one that swings hard, no need to hire a detective. Simply set your bags down and luxuriate in “Elementary, My Dear Watson 2020.” If you fall asleep to this one, you’re inviting the ghosts of hard-bop’s past—Adderley, Chambers, Cobb, Tyner, et. al.—into the living room of your unconscious.

Nearly lost in the shuffle is pianist John Hicks. He’s not on the recording here. It’d be impressive if he were; he died 14 years ago. But it’s important to Watson and Lundy that he’s not forgotten. Lundy conceived of the original “Elementary,” a rudimentary groove over which Watson improvised the melody, in 1988 as the opener to Hicks’ Naima’s Love Song; both he and Watson were sidemen. Watson’s improvisations have since been formally incorporated to the composition, but that takes nothing away from the dynamism of Watson’s playing, which never becomes stilted as a result of what is or isn’t on the page.

If this more propulsive version of “Elementary” is a winking doff of the cap to Hicks, “One for John” is Keepin’ It Real’s explicit tribute Hicks’ playing, which Lundy and Watson likened to a 747 for the way it took flight. Watson and Evans again introduce things with vacuum-tight unison playing. Once airborne, Gould, Lundy, and Jones make the initial ascent as a piano trio before handing off to Evans for a solo. Mid-flight, Evans delivers a searing solo evocative of the late Roy Hargrove, another of Watson’s protégés. The biggest thrill comes on the descent, however, with one of the album’s few drum solos from Victor Jones.

The middle third of the nine-song set is its emotional core. These three tunes best exemplify what Watson’s idea of keepin’ it real is all about.

A cover of soul legend Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” starts things off. Of particular weight at holiday-time, it speaks to several of Kwanzaa’s seven core principles, especially “Imani” (faith).

In Watson’s hands—as it was in Hathaway’s—it’s such a reassuring piece of music, a groovy pep-talk, a protective buoy when it feels like there are swollen seas all around you. With Gould taking to the Fender Rhodes in the spirit of verisimilitude, trumpeter Giveton Gelin providing the most memorable of his three appearances, and Watson displaying rare intonation and control in the upper reaches of his alto, it does the brilliant original justice. And, in its own right, this instrumental version might be the perfect vehicle for perseverance and optimism as we (hopefully) transition away from one of the darkest periods in recent memory.

Next is Charlie Parker’s “Mohawk” in a way you’ve never heard it before. Watson’s taken some liberties with this new arrangement, and those liberties represent the quintessence of what “keepin’ it real” means to Bobby Watson the musician.

“I’ve been playing Bird long enough now that I think I’ve earned some artistic license,” said Watson in the album’s release. “At this point in my life, I understand Bird’s music enough to make it mine.”

And that’s fair enough; last year’s collaboration with fellow altos Gary Bartz and Vincent Herring for Bird at 100 proved as much. It was during that session to commemorate Bird’s centennial that Watson came up with this arrangement of “Mohawk,” a deliberate, velvety potion of R&B-ish soul-jazz that presents more as Gamble and Huff than Bird and Diz. No doubt Grover Washington, Jr. would have felt right at home hopping out for a solo here. And if ever there were a year to raise the dead for the sake of a funky bridge….

Gould merits special mention here for doing the most with the stretched-out canvas Watson has presented. Monk didn’t have nearly as much room to stretch on the original—and he may not have wanted it—but this arrangement thoughtfully makes the best of Gould’s sensibility as a player. It’s a credit to Watson knowing his personnel.

Though there’s no member of the band Watson knows better than himself, and it’s the next one, “My Song,” that offers an unobstructed view directly into Watson’s musical soul. This one, Watson says, is closest to that one song that’s always inside of him, that succinct yet cumulative representation of everything he’s spent a career trying to say through his music.

With that kind of preface, you might expect something grandiose or overly complex. But Watson is a musical populist at heart. Just listen to the constant thwack issuing from the rim of Jones’ snare combined with the ostinato of the bass line—anyone else sensing some inspiration from Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” or “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”?

A deceptively simple head introduced in unison by Watson and Evans gives way to some of the most explosive solo work on the album, while the mesmerizing, chant-like work of the rhythm section is the perfect contextual jumping-off point for solos that are like steroids for the spirit, none more so than Watson’s principal excursion beginning just shy of the three-minute mark.

Keepin’ It Real closes with a sophisticated change-up in “Flamenco Sketches,” long a favorite of both Watson and Lundy, and “The Mystery of Ebop,” a tune reprised from Watson’s 1986 recording Love Remains.

The former is almost surprisingly lovely, not because you doubt the ability of any of these musicians to interpret Miles and Bill Evans but because it’s such an outlier among the other selections here; it’s really the only true ballad and comes on the heels of the frenetic-at-points “One for John.”

If you’re not expecting it, it’s like that sensation of going for a sip of what you believe to be water and getting literally anything else. Nevertheless, it’s gorgeous. Gould, Watson, Evans, Lundy, and Jones all have the requisite heart, head, and chops for a classic that is not easy to do well.

The latter is largely dedicated to the amazing things Victor Jones is capable of doing with a couple of sticks and a drum set. You might hear Marvin “Smitty” Smith; you’ll definitely hear Art Blakey. Also, the tribute-to-John-Hicks storyline comes full circle—it was Hicks on piano when Watson debuted the tune 34 years ago. It just goes to show that, with this music, whether you’re a branch off the Blakey tree or a branch of the Watson tree or share a common root system with both, though you may be gone, you’re never forgotten. And that’s keepin’ it real.