Watts at Scott's
When the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts last recorded a jazz group at one of Ronnie Scott's clubs, the year was 1992, and the result was the largely unlistenable A Tribute to Charlie Parker With Strings (Continuum). Watts assembled a group of muscular improvisers, but he lacked a firm handle on the subtleties of jazz drumming. His snare syncopations were unbearably labored, his kick drum leaden and downbeat-addicted. Bernard Fowler's overly serious narration, drawn from the text of Watts' 1964 children's book, Ode to a High Flying Bird, didn't help matters. Oddly, an earlier studio EP called From One Charlie, with the same group and many of the same tunes, featured Watts in a far more flattering light.
Watts at Scott's, a new two-disc recording from Ronnie Scott's London club, comes as a relief. Watts is still no virtuoso, but he has the hang of it, and he knows how not to encumber his very hip band. The core of the Tentet is in fact Watts' working quintet, with altoist Peter King, trumpeter Gerard Presencer, pianist Brian Lemon and bassist Dave Green. Joining them are six strong players: tenor saxophonist Julian Arguelles, vibist Anthony Kerr, trumpeter Henry Lowther, trombonist Mark Nightingale, baritone player Alan Barnes and percussionist Luis Jardim (for a total of 11 band members, in fact).
The additional soloists make for a more vibrant blowing date, but there's a good deal going on here in terms of repertoire as well. On the one hand you have the traditional cookers: "Main Stem," "Bemsha Swing," "Little Willie Leaps" and "Take the 'A' Train." On the other you have two modernist originals, "Anthony's Dice" and "Chasing Reality"-both by Presencer, an underrated player who recently turned up on fine recordings by Tim Garland and Joe Locke (and who channeled Freddie Hubbard on Us3's smash 1993 single "Cantaloop"). Presencer also takes the first of three consecutive ballad features, "What's New," followed by Lemon's trio reading of "Body and Soul" and Nightingale's gratifying look at "Here's That Rainy Day." An extended jam on "Tin Tin Deo," with vocal intercessions by Jardim, closes disc one.
Barnes' baritone opens disc two in Harry Carney mode, with one of Ellington's most opulent melodies, "Sunset and the Mockingbird." Later, we hear "Faction and Band Introduction," which is Presencer's Latinish vamp-jazz arrangement of the Stones' "Satisfaction." (Saxophonist Tim Ries, a frequent Rolling Stones sideman, is doing similar things with his Stones Project.)
The most interesting items, however, are "Airto II" and "Elvin's Song," both adapted from pieces on 2000's The Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project (CyberOctave). This album is a work of electro-acoustic collage, with each track named for a different legendary jazz drummer. The tributes are impressionistic and highly subjective, and "Airto" and "Elvin's Song" are two of the more melodic and memorable cuts. The former has synthesized voices, bandoneon, acoustic bass and piano weaving through a set of lilting chord changes, but in the Tentet setting Kerr's vibes take over the main riff and the tune's full jazz potential is realized. "Elvin's Song," originally conceived with haunting African voices in the foreground, becomes a show-stopping feature for Nightingale's plunger trombone and, in the second half, Arguelles' outward-bound tenor. Moments like these lift Watts at Scott's above the ordinary.