To the Point
Ernie Watts begins the live show making up his album To the Point with a two-and-a-half-minute unaccompanied solo, seemingly improvising freely as the notes, the tempo and the tone occur to him, and changing quickly from one brief riff to another before he hits upon a quick bop phrase and repeats it as David Witham’s piano falls in with him and Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” emerges. The solo is a statement of purpose, of course. It’s a traditional jazz touchstone, the lone tenorist in search of creative perfection, Coltrane practicing endlessly alone in his bedroom, Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge. For Watts, who was 61 when he and his quartet played this show at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, Calif., in August 2007, it introduces an album deliberately called To the Point and, as he makes clear in his spoken remarks as well as his playing, intended to express the double meaning of that title. This is an artist who has come to the point in his career when he feels free to do as he likes and, at the same time, one who is ready to come to the point, not dillydallying anymore.
The more sympathetic accounts of Watts’ varied career tend to use words like “adaptability” and “versatility” to address his stylistic changes over the years. But he has now been leading a quartet for two decades, and his mainstream-jazz bona fides are long since established. On To the Point, he seems to be taking stock, telling his audience that he has realized he will never be Coltrane, that he must be himself. He’s also noting the death of his near-contemporary Michael Brecker (their ages less than four years apart), with whom he also has been compared, by offering a feeling tribute, “For Michael.” His playing has an appropriately keening tone on the tune, following the lyrical playing he brought to the ballad “Season of Change” just before. But he can also be more raucous, honking into the stratosphere on “Reaching Up,” the closing track. In any case, as a mature musician making music on his own label (this is his fourth release on his Flying Dolphin imprint), he has no reason not to be himself. For now, and from now on, it’s not about his versatility or adaptability, it’s about his virtuosity.