As a jazz listener, if you’re oriented a certain way—say, Blue Note, 1958—combing through the contemporary jazz scene can prove a little hit-or-miss.
For those who unashamedly favor the middle of the road, like this reviewer, atonal skronk and chilly intellectualism may be far afield from why you fell in love with the music in the first place. If you crave swinging blues and tender ballads, full stop, Smoke Sessions Records is a logical portal; their offerings cut to the heart of the matter.
Enter alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, who’s latest is for the storied Upper West Side club’s in-house label. On Back Home in Kansas City, Watson is joined by his rhythm-section standbys—bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Jones—as well as trumpet master Jeremy Pelt and piano great Cyrus Chestnut.
Watson grew up in K.C., a crucial city in jazz history, and has lived there for the last two decades; the album is a hometown tribute, which is nothing new. But the city isn’t the long and short of the album; Watson and his colleagues draw energies from all over the place: John Coltrane (“Dear Lord,” “Side Steps”), Herbie Hancock (“Bon Voyage”), John Hicks (“Mind Wine”).
Some of the most satisfying threads are pulled from within; indeed, Jones’ prowling “Red Bank Heist,” Chestnut’s gently rolling “The Star in the East,” and Pelt’s intimate yet subtly biting “Celestial” are undeniable highlights.
This pours out of Watson’s sextet beautifully and cohesively; even when they change it up by adding a vocalist, Carmen Lundy, on “Our Love Remains,” it’s not jarring, but fitting. Back Home in Kansas City proves that Watson’s hometown remains a fount of inspiration both historically and personally. Who better to receive its flow?