The turning point in drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ latest CD comes about 26 minutes in, right between the powerhouse “Seed of Blakzilla” and the ballad “Laura Elizabeth.” In the first four tracks, Watts’ loaded quartet turns out a string of dazzling postbop gems. The opening “Samo” is a study in opposing forces, with saxophonist Marcus Strickland spinning in ever-denser circles while the leader pulls outward in all directions. “Rotation,” a Keith Jarrett composition, tilts atop a staccato pile of rhythmic fragments, yet shows such cohesion that the entire band seems to be an extension of the drum kit. “Ling’s Lope” is a relaxed, bluesy twist on Thelonious Monk’s “Played Twice,” an old-school stroll with classy solos from pianist David Kikoski and bassist Christian McBride. And “Blakzilla” is as in-your-face as its title, with Watts’ drums piling it on in a juggernaut of forward motion.
But just before “Laura Elizabeth” comes a 30-second break of studio laughter and riffing, and from that point on it’s a different disc, the initial fire replaced by a hit-or-miss pastiche. “Galilee” sneaks up on you, transforming from a meditative tone poem into gospel through a fulcrum of anguish, and “Blues 4 Curtis” takes a simple funky stomp on a tour of rock, bop and the blues. But a reiteration of “Rotation” adds little to the original statement despite being two minutes longer, and “Same Page” almost derails the proceedings with its painfully goofy vocals. Thankfully, the Africanized ballad “Blasphemy” sets things right for a simple but moving ending.