Much like Charles Mingus before him, Jeff “Tain” Watts thinks and writes as hard as he plays. This combination of careful consideration and intense execution enables the veteran drum dynamo to make his presence felt in ways both forceful and subtle on his often audacious new album, Watts, which teams him with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a musical campadre since their days together in Wynton Marsalis’ quintet in the early 1980s. Ace trumpeter Terence Blanchard and bass stalwart Christian McBride complete the powerhouse lineup, which performs with fire, finesse and a finely calibrated sense of improvisational ingenuity that at times borders on the near-telepathic, yet never lacks surprise.
The comparison to Mingus is more than incidental. Watts cites as a key inspiration for Watts the bass giant’s 1960 album, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, both for its visceral piano-less quartet lineup and for its namesake’s unyielding devotion to using his music as a potent force to articulate the social and political inequities and outrages of the day. Watts also shares Mingus’ ability to simultaneously salute and extend various jazz traditions in an open-ended format that encourages constant aural adventure.
Happily, to enjoy the drummer’s new opus you don’t know need to know about Mingus’ influence, or be able to recognize this vivid album cover’s depiction of the Watts Towers in one of Los Angeles’ most volatile neighborhoods of the civil rights era. Nor do you need to know what specifically inspired him to compose any of these 10 songs. Because what makes Watts so moving is how this almost entirely instrumental album consistently ignites through the individual skills and shared artistic vision of the four musicians.
It’s been 18 years since Watts’ recording debut as a leader, and his growth and confidence, both as a drummer and a composer, are palpable. His propulsive playing, much like his writing, strikes a fine balance between being brawny and brainy, playful and poignant. He doesn’t solo until near the end of the album’s fifth selection, the southern-fried “Dancin’ 4 Chicken” (which begins with a delightful, cut-time bowed solo by McBride), but Watts’ presence is strongly felt throughout.
Like such jazz drum icons as Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette before him, Watts is in constant motion. He engages in a charged, give-and-take dialogue with his collaborators that is sustained from the fiery opening cut, “Return of the Jitney Man,” through the final unison sax and trumpet lines of “The Devil’s Ring Tone,” more than an hour later.
Musical homages abound on Watts, be it the sly, Thelonious Monk-isms of “Dingle-Dangle,” the blues-drenched salute to Ornette Coleman on “Brekky with Drekky” (which features a splendid solo by Marsalis that sounds relaxed even in its most accelerated moments), or the bristling, James Brown-meets-New Orleans elegy “Katrina James,” which allows Big Easy natives Blanchard and Marsalis to pay soulful tribute to their besieged hometown with earthy eloquence.
The quartet is ably augmented by pianist Lawrence Fields on “Owed … ” A mellifluous ballad, it offers a well-timed change of pace and a welcomed reminder of Marsalis’ rare ability to play even the sweetest-toned soprano sax motifs without ever becoming cloying or predictable.
Watts falters only with “Devil’s Ring Tone: The Movie.” While listeners should be able to quickly determine the identity of the witless “Mr. W” in the spoken parts of this barbed socio-political satire, the song’s nearly seven-minute length dilutes its impact and that of the album as a whole. Otherwise, Watts is a tour de force as provocative as it is inspirational.