Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bobby Watson and the Indianapolis Jazz Collective put their simpatico heads together

Alto saxophone mastery honed in the fruitful fields of hard bop got a star outing Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen, when Bobby Watson was joined onstage by the all-star Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

The first of two sets presented by the 2015 Indy Jazz Fest displayed the 62-year-old musician's sensitivity and flair. "Hard bop," though a term best applied to the long, productive history of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (of which Watson was musical director for years), seems restrictive when applied to Watson. "Soft bop" conveys the wrong message, but Watson's tone, while intense, sends warm, inviting messages with nothing hard about them.

Hearty and imaginative: Bobby Watson at the Jazz Kitchen.
Especially impressive was his solo feature, the standard "These Foolish Things." Backed by the Collective's rhythm section of pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps, Watson first stated the theme alone with an immediate rush of the nostalgic ardor the song celebrates. I admired his incorporation of bent notes on the bridge, which hinted at a bluesy side of the song that is not evident in many performances. With the rhythm section suspending activity near the very end, Watson played a spellbinding cadenza larded with Charlie Parker allusions.

That showcase immediately preceded the set finale, "In Case You Missed It," a Watson original from Blakey's "Album of the Year" (1981). That landmark album was credited by Collective tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon with solidifying his devotion to jazz as a high-school musician. The performance featured a typically robust Watson solo, with long phrases, cogent and fully supported.

The set opened with another charming Watson tune, "Time Will Tell." It's a great vehicle for a sextet of this degree of competence, drive, and lyricism.  It was wonderful to hear Dixon varying his solo so expressively after finding him a little monotonous machine-gunning notes in solos at the Indy Jazz Fest opener last Thursday. He was clearly feeling right at home Wednesday evening, standing shoulder to shoulder with his idol.

Clearly all the local musicians were inspired: Marlin McKay took an appealing flugelhorn solo, and the tune definitely appealed to Allee as well: It seemed a shirttail relative of the kind of tunes Allee writes, especially in his "New York in the Fifties" persona. The ensemble blend was pretty tasty throughout; you'd hardly know the group didn't play together all the time.

In contrast, the lickety-split version of "My Shining Hour" that followed opened with a blazing tenor statement and proceeded largely as a parade of solos. When Watson's turn came, he soloed with only Phelps accompanying for a while; then the rest of the rhythm section entered at just the right time. Tucker's bass solo, incidentally, was at such a high level that one almost wished the performance had been recorded. But good live jazz — one and done — always has an excitement all its own, because you either thrill to it at the time or you don't at all.

The stately version of  Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" the band offered brought to mind another Indy Jazz Fest milestone: a deconstructed version of the tune offered by the megastar duo of the composer and Herbie Hancock at Military Park many years ago. This version was more straightforward, with its moaning tag expertly tucked in amid expansive, soulful and soleful solos.

McKay must be looking forward to winter, as his solo quoted phrases from "Sleigh Ride" for the second time of the evening. Watson brought to his solo a little bit of preaching reflecting his roots in the black church. In the outchorus, he placed arabesques and wispy reflections against the theme carried by his front-line partners.

Most in the audience were prepared to agree with the anti-Trump rant Watson inserted into the long diminuendo vamp of "In Case You Missed It."

"This is the music that made America great," Watson said as he launched into his amusing putdown of the former "Apprentice" host. "This is what we do."

After such a set, who could argue with him — besides Donald Trump?

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

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