There is an undeniable explosiveness in Jeff “Tain” Watts’s playing, a fun and exuberant sense of freedom. It was obvious when he burst onto the jazz scene in the late 1980s playing as a sideman for Wynton’s and Branford Marsalis’s bands and is even more obvious on Family, his newest album from Dark Key music. Offering nine richly diverse tunes, with styles ranging from fusion to swing and bossa nova to hard-bop, the album is as eclectic and varied as they come. It also features Watts balancing his roles as bandleader and section player with a Zen-like stability and poise. Listeners will be impressed with his ability to add so much flavor and style to his music without ever overstepping his role as a rhythm player or overshadowing the virtuosity of his fellow bandmates. That’s why Family is more than just a showcase for Watts’s skill and dexterity as a drummer. It is a perfect example of what good jazz drumming is supposed to be: simple but not subservient, strong but not stifling, complex but not complicated.
All nine tracks on Family are Watts originals, and all of them feature endlessly entertaining interactions between Watts and the other members of his quartet – pianist David Kikoski, bassist James Genus, and saxophonist Steve Wilson. The group’s smooth and lyrical balance is evident on tunes like “Family” and “Goldaze,” which feature brilliant solos by Wilson and Kikoski. “Of August Moon,” find the band hurdling through an obstacle course of slow and fast tempo changes, and is a real demonstration of Watts’s versatility as a composer. His “Jonesin (for Elvin)” is a groovy hard-bop tune fueled by unbridled energy and swing, offering a nice counterbalance to his slow and poignant “A Wreath for John. T Smith,” on which his playing achieves a soft-spoken, almost vocal tenderness. Watts’s playing is full of passion and personality, and whether cutting loose as a soloist on “Edwardian Overture” or providing the rhythmic consistency for the lyrical “Little Michael,” he never fails to make his drum set “sing” with self-expression. Even on the more rhythmically complex tunes like “Mobius” and “Torch Eternal,” Watts proves that he is a musician first, drummer second. That kind of musicianship is something fans have come to expect from Jeff “Tain” Watts, and on this album, he doesn’t let them down.
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