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Bobby Watson & Victor Lewis: On the Horizon

Horizon: Essiet, Watson, Lewis, Simon and Stafford

They were known as “the happy band.” Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s Bobby Watson and Victor Lewis’ Horizon concocted a soul-stirring brand of hard bop where joy radiated off the bandstand. While it took a while for the band to gel-bassists Curtis Lundy and Carroll Dashiell, trumpeters Melton Mustafa and Roy Hargrove and pianists John Hicks and Benny Green are only some of Horizon’s alumni-once Watson and Lewis found trumpeter Terell Stafford, bassist Essiet Essiet and pianist Ed Simon, they brewed an intoxicating chemistry. Everyone on the bandstand unleashed ferocious solos, yet they also were shamelessly lighthearted, often engaging the audience in humorous banter. “We never walked on the bandstand like intellectual snobs,” Lewis says. “We joked around and had fun. I think that pulled the audience in.”

Eleven years ago, at the height of Horizon’s popularity, Columbia released Midwest Shuffle, which captured one of the group’s exhilarating live performances. Then, Horizon was gone. According to Watson, they decided to disband because each member was becoming a bandleader on his own. The group reconvened for a small tour in 2000, but now, with the release of Horizon Reassembled (Palmetto), Horizon is back in full swing.

The new disc shows no evidence of Horizon’s 10-year recording hiatus. Every tune sparkles with singable melodies, rapturous solos and dazzling displays of communal interplay. Another contributing factor to Horizon’s greatness is their indelible songbook. While many neobop bands of the previous two decades subverted their old-school R&B and funk influences, Horizon incorporates them. You can feel the funk in their sultry makeover of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” and Watson’s gorgeous ballad “Dark Days.” Watson described his sound best with the title of his 1990 disc, Post-Motown Bop. “A lot of tunes I write start out with an R&B origin. There has to be a certain groove, beat or feeling,” Watson says. “I play bop, but I came up through the Motown era.”

Many of Horizon’s ballads, however, are written by Watson’s wife, Pamela, who could be viewed as the band’s unofficial sixth member. Her shimmering “The Love We Had Yesterday” is one of Horizon Reassembled’s most sterling moments. “We’ve been recording her songs since day one,” Watson says. “On my first records, I had her singing on them, but I didn’t want to fall into that ‘husband and wife, sax player and singer trap,’ because she brings more to the table than just her vocal abilities.”

Lewis’ compositional contributions can’t be overstated either. His sensual ballads “Big Girls,” “Hey, It’s Me You’re Talking To” and “Lil’ Sis” are becoming new standards. “I’m trying to transcend the common view of drummers,” Lewis says. “People expect drummers to write very fast and complicated songs, but I love writing waltzes and moody ballads.”

Watson readily admits the group members aren’t going to be able to focus solely on Horizon as they did in the past. But with an upcoming tour and maybe a few follow-up discs, happy days are, if only momentarily, here again.