Review Summary: Defining self is an ageless philosophical conundrum; 63-year-old Watts succeeds brilliantly.
Unfortunately recognized by most from the Windows XP pre-loaded “Highway Blues”, yet memorable to the in-the-know as a grammy winning, modern king-of-swing, Ernie Watts tells an electric Jazz Bakery crowd what it means to get To The Point
. Assisted by David Witham (piano), Bruce Lett (bass), and Bob Leatherbarrow (drums), the two-decades-old Ernie Watts Quartet surpasses the expectations of any faithful fan, while shattering preconceptions of the uninitiated.
A dark room, a hushed crowd, and an eternity elapses – a spotlight shines on the solitary source of sound, a gleaming Keilwerth SX 90R (get past the horn, tenor players, pay attention to who’s behind it). A cacophonic cadenza – dissonant arpeggios, off-balance blasts, and supersonic swing melt into the major-tonal melody of “Hot House”, a classic Tad Dameron standard. Setting the perfect foundation for a Watts Quartet experience, the escalating tension is finally released with a Witham-Watts transitional duet. The Hot House ignites.
The theme of tonight’s performance, ladies and gentlemen, is continuity. Each of Ernie’s studio albums represent (as with any composer that has merit) a period of time in his development – not only as a player, but on an emotional level. Evidenced by the title track and its introduction, Watts and company realize this and channel it into over an hour of ferociously passionate performance. From the blooming minor-to-major “Season of Change”, to the opposing, melancholic lows and soaring highs of Watts’ personal dedication for the late Michael Brecker, there lies a lesson in pure escalation. That is, not only does the quartet have a masterful understanding and execution of dynamics as musicians, but Watts himself has a firm grasp of their shift with respect to the performance as a whole.
“To The Point”, a star that shines only slightly brighter than the rest, takes the audience into the second half of the journey (especially after the remembrance of the great Brecker). Watts isn’t just the sum of his influences; he’s carved his own name into the bark of the maturing jazz-family tree. A Miles-influenced refrain further emphasizes the decidedly Watts signature sound mixed thoroughly within. Listen carefully and it’s readily apparent that Watts, Witham, Lett, and Leatherbarrow all find their respective point and places – meandering and scalar at times, yet eventually focused and melodic, Witham and Watts always find their way through the solid, locked-in grooves of Lett and Leatherbarrow. No, Lett doesn’t solo all over the place, swinging his bass around his body, treating his bass like a Chapman Stick; that’s not the point.
After the crescendo of a performance, it’s very easy for a group to lose focus. There’s no threat of that here, with a striking noir-influenced follow-up in “Nightscape”, coupled with an ode to the roots of jazz in “Road Shoes”. The only slight mar on a successful evening lies within the closer selection – an uptempo classic, “Reaching Up”. Likely one of the best tracks put down in the entirety of Watts’ studio catalog, one may wonder as to how on earth this could possibly be a sore-spot for an otherwise golden performance. The reality of the situation is that the song was originally recorded with a fairly sizeable group, including the reputable Arturo Sandoval on trumpet. His presence is definitely missing at the Jazz Bakery, as the tune was meant to have that additional variation and brass support.
Regardless, To The Point
examines Watts and Company at their best – and is obviously introspective for each of them. If anything besides massive doses of entertainment, some Los Angeles natives hopefully found the inspiration to find their point and embrace it. Any step one can take in defining self is always a big step, and Ernie Watts makes it sound easy.