Saxophonist Ernie Watts possesses one of jazz’s most distinctive tenor tones, a sound of both mammoth size and full-hearted romanticism. This sound largely sustains Wheel of Time, a no-frills, pleasantly listenable outing from Watts’ European quartet (pianist Christof Saenger, bassist Rudi Engel and drummer Heinrich Koebberling), with whom he has played and recorded regularly for over 15 years.
The album kicks off with Watts’ earworm of an original composition, “Letter From Home.” On “A Distant Light,” his breathy lines weave a thoughtful waltz-time mood, and he doubles himself on soprano for a sprightly tropics-tinged take on Canadian pianist Adrean Farrugia’s “Goose Dance.” In a tougher-edged vein, Watts’ hectic “Velocity” lives up to its title, the rhythm trio blasting ever forward while the saxophonist cuts loose with his sharpest, most piercing figures of the album. This gritty tone also permeates the band’s rendering of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” where the tune’s multi-leveled intro primes Watts for some deft sleight-of-hand runs, answered with grace by Saenger and a burbling, light-on-its-feet solo from Koebberling.
Each of Watts’ musicians also provides Wheel of Time with an example of their compositional skills. Saenger’s “L’Agua Azul” marries the pianist’s classically inflected tones with an airtight rhythmic undercurrent from Koebberling’s relentless brushes. The drummer’s own “You and You” is breezy and bright, with a Watts solo of carefree virtuosity, while Engel’s “Andi’s Blues” finds the bassist and Saenger delivering precision-tooled swing.
Engel is also appropriately showcased on the elegiac album-closing title track. Its subtitle is “Anthem for Charlie,” and it’s Watts’ tribute to Charlie Haden, with whom Watts played for nearly 30 years in Haden’s neo-noir outfit Quartet West. Engel smoothly evokes the style of Watts’ fallen comrade, and closes the album with an unexpected, perfectly chosen quotation from Haden’s rootsy solo bass composition “Ozark Mountain Railroad.”