Saxophonist Bobby Watson may be best known for his four years with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but his distinguished career also includes work with Max Roach, Wynton Marsalis, Betty Carter, Carlos Santana, Horizon and the 29th Street Saxophone Quartet. He is currently Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. His latest recording is From the Heart (Palmetto).
1. Christian McBride
“Brother Mister” (from Kind of Brown, Mack Avenue). McBride, bass; Carl Allen, drums; Eric Scott Reed, piano; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Warren Wolf, Jr., vibes. Released in 2009.
Before: I like how the drummer is committed to the groove. He’s not moving around all over the place. Is that Kenny Garrett? Then I don’t know who the alto player is. It makes me feel good, upbeat. It’s got a dance feeling to it. And the drummer is holding everything together, so it gives the soloists a chance to express themselves. He’s not trying to chase them. It’s a variation on the blues. It’s got that Les McCann vibe.
After: Oh, so that’s Warren Wolf on vibes. He’s on my last record. I love Steve Wilson. I like his versatility. He’s played with Chick Corea, who I would love to play with. Steve has beauty in his sound but he’s still got the modern edge. And Christian is my heart. I met him when he was 14 or 15 in Philly. He’s like a sponge, he absorbs everything. And he plays great piano. Of course he loves James Brown. This has Eric Reed and Carl Allen, so I see why it sounds like it does.
2. Johnny Hodges
“Sophisticated Lady” (from The Jeep Is Jumping, Proper). Hodges, alto saxophone; Al Sears, tenor saxophone; Emmett Berry, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Billy Strayhorn, piano; Lloyd Trotman, bass; Sonny Greer, drums. Recorded in 1951.
Before: That’s Johnny Hodges, “Sophisticated Lady.” Johnny Hodges is unmistakable. He has a voice and a sound, so it just takes two or three notes. It’s like Miles or Cannonball or Bird. Certain people, you hear two or three notes and you know.
Any favorite Hodges recordings?
All the ballads. And then the early stuff, like “Daybreak Express.” In later years he didn’t display his virtuosity as much, but the virtuosity was there in the note choice and the personification of beauty. And if you look at him play, he looks like he’s somewhere else. It’s not like he’s closing his eyes or squinting or really getting into it. He looked totally detached. But he wore his heart on his sleeve when he played. And he could definitely play some blues. That was easy.
It’s always easy if you know.
3. Orrin Evans
“Faith in Action” (from Faith in Action, Positone). Evans, piano; Luques Curtis, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Bobby Watson, composer. Recorded in 2009.
That’s Orrin Evans playing one of my songs. He comes from a great family of artists and intellectuals. Very well educated. It’s fun to have faith. The guys who raised me all had a philosophy. They were all characters: Dexter, Sonny Stitt, Max, Art, Clifford Jordan, John Hicks, these guys had a philosophy of life. They weren’t always politically correct but they were all telling the truth as they saw it. And Orrin is in that situation right now. I would have never thought about this piece that way. When I was coming up, the cats used to say: if you’re playing a Charlie Parker tune or a Duke Ellington tune or a Monk tune, and if you were playing it the way they did it, even though you thought you were paying homage to them, they’d say “yeah, I hear what you’re doing, but don’t you have anything of your own? I did that already.” So I respect Orrin because he took my song and he did it his way. And he surprised me. The way he framed it was surprising. It’s still a waltz, but the way he interpreted it, it’s as if he had never heard me play it. So it was fresh to me. These tunes of mine that he recorded, we’ve played them on the road a lot of times, but this is what he was really thinking, what he really wanted to do [chuckles].
4. Miguel Zenon
“Residencial Llorens Torres” (from Esta Plena, Marsalis Music). Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums. Recorded in 2008.
Before: I like this. I want to say Greg Osby, but it’s not him. I hear a lot of clarity. I hear really good technique, but it has the emotion behind it. It makes me want to learn that song. They’re on a journey but it has a melodic side to it and it’s intricate. I would probably have something different to say after listening to it three or four times. It’s got some time changes in there. I think it’s indicative of a lot of things that are being played today. It’s a song that musicians can appreciate more than the average listener. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that but I’m a musician and I need to listen to it three or four times. The musician in me is attracted to that immediately. If someone put that music in front of me, I’d have to take it home and practice it for a few days. I’m not going to sight read that. I think it’s very well done. I think any listener who took the time to get into this, would raise their awareness of what a jazz musician is trying to do. But I wouldn’t play this for someone I’m trying to bring into jazz. I would feed him something else and then I’d drop this on him.
After: I like him. He’s from Puerto Rico, right? Miguel is a very fine musician; he plays the instrument well, has a great sound and a lot of passion. He understands the drums.
5. Art Pepper
“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” (from Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, Contemporary). Pepper, alto saxophone; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums. Recorded in 1957.
Before: [immediately] “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” I know this guy. I want to say Paul Desmond, but I know it’s not. Sonny Criss? Wait a minute. This is an old recording, this hasn’t been done in the last 30 years. It’s the beat, the commitment to the beat. These guys are feeling the swing and they’re believing what they’re playing. It’s not obligatory 4/4. These guys are feeling it from the bottom up. You hear the rhythm section, it’s got that bounce to it. That’s Red Garland. Paul Chambers? Must be Philly Joe, then. Who’s that alto? It’s killing me. I’m gonna be mad when you tell me.
After: Art Pepper. Yeah, this is a classic. Back in the day, whether you were a white musician, or Latin or European, you would go to the well. And Art Pepper went to the well and paid tribute to Charlie Parker and the music of day, then he found his own sound. The way he plays, I know that Art Pepper hung out with the brothers. I’m sure he was tight with a lot of cats. Life was more segregated back then, but the beautiful thing about jazz is that white and black used to get together ahead of the curve. The color line was crossed in jazz decades before it was put into law. And Art Pepper represents that. He could swing, and he wasn’t afraid to hire one of the great rhythm sections of the time and record with them because he had enough confidence in all the homework he had done. He knew he could play. He wasn’t intimidated. Today a lot of people are intimidated by swing. That’s why you hear a lot of straight 8th notes on records these days, but I don’t hear a lot of spang-a-lang. That’s not easy to do.
In your life and career, have you ever felt intimidated?
When I first started working with Art Blakey, I was intimidated because the beat he was putting behind me was so pure, I didn’t want to mess it up. I was scared to hit a wrong note. And I would get too perfect and Art would cuss me out. He would say, “You’re not making any mistakes. I want to hear mistakes.” He said mistakes are the gateway to discovery. I heard Art Pepper at the Vanguard. I was happy to meet him.
The rest of this Before & After session appears in the March 2011 issue of JazzTimes. Originally Published