History has a way of elevating some heroes and obscuring others. Made in America from saxophonist Bobby Watson serves as something of a corrective to that kind of presentational injustice. Over the course of 65 minutes, his soulful alto rolls out a series of musical portraits highlighting the contributions of important yet oft-overlooked African-American pioneers. A few figures on the list may transcend the theme—Sammy Davis, Jr. is far from unheralded, guitarist Grant Green is certainly acknowledged in the jazz world, and Butterfly McQueen holds a certain cachet in film circles—but the majority fit the bill.
Wendell Pruitt, a Tuskegee Airman who flew dozens of combat missions, is saluted on “The Aviator,” a number that sows melodic seeds taken from “The U.S. Air Force Song” and shifts from a lightly funky gait to solid swing. Madam C.J. Walker, a self-made millionaire who created a line of beauty products for black women, is represented with “The Entrepreneur,” a joyously flowing statement with a pseudo-calypso lilt. Dr. Mark Dean, one of the chief minds behind the creation of IBM computers, is honored on “The Computer Scientist,” a firm-handed and witty scenario that’s perfectly fitting in sound and scope.
Davis is the one figure who gets two nods here, and he’s certainly deserving: “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” the crooner’s self-proclaimed theme, and “The G.O.A.T,” on which drummer Lewis Nash’s brushes operate with a soft-shoe aesthetic and Curtis Lundy’s pliant bass comes to the fore. Watson, pianist Stephen Scott and the joined-at-the-hip combination of Lundy and Nash do these significant men and women justice while elevating their own art.