Bobby Watson really wants listeners to know that Keepin’ It Real, which unveils a fresh lineup of his Horizon band (appropriately redubbed New Horizon), has got the goods: “Condition Blue,” the Jackie McLean-penned tune that opens the nine-track program, wails like these guys’ lives depend on it. For the first half-minute, it’s just the alto saxophonist and trumpeter Josh Evans all synced up and teasing, then they let it rip: Pianist Victor Gould, bassist Curtis Lundy (a holdover from the last incarnation), and drummer Victor Jones (did it take two Victors to replace previous drummer Victor Lewis?) are off and running. If this jam is more than a little reminiscent of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, that’s no accident: Watson served as that group’s onetime music director and he’s still proud to acknowledge the impact that experience has had on him.
The Blakey references are there too on Watson’s own “The Mystery of Ebop,” which closes the recording in the same fiery manner in which it began. In between, though, other routes are often taken, notably on the silky Donny Hathaway soul gem “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” one of three tracks on which Giveton Gelin replaces Evans on trumpet, and the Miles Davis/Bill Evans ballad “Flamenco Sketches.” Watson is a commanding player with an assured leadership style, but he’s generous as well. (Perhaps too much so: At times, drummer Jones scoots ahead of the pack, forcing the others to play catchup.) On Charlie Parker’s “Mohawk,” Watson yields ample solo time to Gelin, finding that same unbreakable bond that the altoist shares with Evans elsewhere.
Keepin’ It Real doesn’t pretend to break new ground, for Watson or in general; what it does is showcase an exceptionally tight-knit outfit doing what the album title promises.