Jeff "Tain" Watts has brought so much ebullient forward momentum with his joi de swing to so many bands, most notably the original Wynton Marsalis Quintet and similarly incendiary outfits led by Branford Marsalis and Michael Brecker, that his own propulsive projects as a leader naturally pique interest. On this follow-up to 1999's Citizen Tain, the seething swingmeister unleashes his trademark polyrhythmic thrust in the company of regular band members like pianist David Budway, guitarist Paul Bollenback and bassist James Genus along with special guest saxophonists Ravi Coltrane, Branford and Brecker, pianist and frequent collaborator Joey Calderazzo, guitarist Hiram Bullock and harmonica ace Gregoire Maret. And the results are often scintillating.
Bar Talk has Tain contributing eight of the album's 10 compositions, each one a thoughtful expression that runs the rhythmic gamut from solid backbeat to subtle coloration to scintillating swing. The jovial opener, "JC Is the Man," is a buoyant swinger, featuring some strong contributions from Coltrane, that represents Watts' good-natured sense of humor. Marsalis' tenor is highlighted on "Vodville," a scorching quartet number that varies tempos a la Mingus without sacrificing on its swing factor one iota. He blows heroically throughout this narrative piece that chronicles one man's cycle from drunkenness to enlightenment and back again. Budway, a stellar and vastly underrated pianist, distinguishes himself with a daring, inventive solo before Watts erupts in some polyrhythmic abandon on his own spotlight.
Tain's lovely "Stevie in Rio" is a lyrical ode to Stevie Wonder featuring the gorgeous Wonderesque harmonica playing of Maret, a new virtuoso on the block. Coltrane also acquits himself nicely on that uplifting vehicle with some allusions to the samba. Guitarist Bullock contributes some nasty funk-blues licks to the slow-grooving "Side B," while Tain plays lightly and politely on Budway's gentle, cascading "Kiss," which features some outstanding soprano work by Coltrane in unison with Bollenback's guitar. The dynamic peak of this power-packed recording is a first-ever studio encounter between the two tenor titans, Brecker and Marsalis, on "Mr. JJ." This bit of friendly sparring over a relentlessly swinging groove results in the most heated exchanges of the session, with Calderazzo fueling the fire along the way with his own McCoy Tyner-influenced piano playing.
A dramatic highlight is Watts' heartfelt tribute to the late Billy Higgins on "Laughin' & Talkin' (With Higg)," a swinging paean imbued with the inimitable personalities of both Smilin' Billy and Tain himself. The piece opens, fittingly, with a solo drum statement by Watts before heading into a brisk, Higgins-inspired swing section. Coltrane really digs deep, while Bollenback, one of the most underrated guitarists around, also gets a taste. Tain's unaccompanied solo here is outstanding, a polyrhythmic whirlwind of harnessed energy.
Kenny Kirkland's beautiful ballad "Tonality of Atonement" is rendered as a lush vehicle for Tain's alluring brushwork and Marsalis' very vocal soprano work. Watts' evocative "Like the Rose" also marks his vocal debut, though as a singer Tain is no George Benson. The piece opens with a touching piano-vocal intro before heading into a slamming ska-funk-reggae feel with Brecker's tenor wailing on top of the 6/4 groove. Bollenback also explodes with some six-string fury on this aggressive closer.
While there is no doubt that Watts is among the most accomplished and respected drummers on the jazz scene today, he is also gradually building up an impressive body of work as a leader and composer.