When the story of this era’s jazz masters is told, West Coast tenor man and bandleader Ernie Watts ought to be prominently featured. Watts, perhaps once underappreciated because of the overtly commercial bent of many of his ’70s and ’80s recordings, has evolved into a saxophonist whose sound is simultaneously brawny and beautiful, an instrumentalist who explores every part of his horn and knows how to write and/or pick tunes perfectly suited to his approach. His Coltrane-inspired playing is sometimes tender, sometimes fierce: Check out his take-no-prisoners rampage near the end of quick-twisting bop romp “Frequie Flyiers,” during which he’s joined only by drummer Heinrich Koebberling.
That tune, midway through Home Light, another high-caliber release from the leader’s long-running European quartet, is immediately followed by a lush ballad, “Horizon,” co-written by Watts and the group’s pianist, Christof Saenger. Watts’ sound here is warm, lilting, and buoyant, and Saenger gets well-utilized solo space. Koebberling, too, contributes a track: His laidback “Café Central 2am” allies stop-time figures with a flowing tenor melody.
The disc includes several nods and tributes. “O.P.,” written by Sam Jones for a major influence, Oscar Pettiford, is built on a swiveling unison tenor-and-bass melody. Appropriately enough, it offers much room for bassist Rudi Engel’s rangy solo, and gives the drummer some during a trading-fours section. Perky Latin-to-swing piece “Joe”—penned by trumpeter Brad Goode, with whom Watts has worked—doffs its hat to another tenor master, Joe Henderson. And the loping, bluesy title track, one of five tracks that stretch beyond the eight-minute mark with plenty of ease, is dedicated to drummer Ndugu Chancler. Watts’ Home Light burns bright.