Review : Ernie Watts

Saxophonist Ernie Watts (photo above: William Claxton) has known consistent and major success as a session and studio musician over a very long period – eg try this from the seventies when he was Marvin Gaye’s first call sax player. But Watts lets it be clearly known that jazz, and jazz clubs, are where his real his heart is; that his inspirations are players such as Coltrane and Michael Brecker.

At his best – which I think is his ballad playing – his playing not only has complete presence and command, he also has a story to tell. The full house which welcomed him to Ronnie Scott’s last night saluted and cheered him throughout. And in his hard-swinging and triumphant G minor blues encore “Gee Baby” we also eagerly accepted his invitation to clap the backbeat loud and strong.

The Watts presence starts with the sound. Like those other Buddy Rich alumni Don Menza and the late Steve Marcus, it is big and loud. Like David Sanborn – the studio habit perhaps ? – he often asserts his presence by blowing hard up in the altissimo. His website (apologies for nerdiness) says that his tenor mouthpiece lay is a 13, far wider than just about anyone else (Garbarek plays off a 5 according to this website)

Yes, those ballads. After two hard-driven openers (the highly complex To the Point, and Spirit Song, which didn’t get properly airborne) I really enjoyed the 1959 Tommy Wolf/Fran Landesman ballad The Ballad of the Sad Young Men. Couples around me were getting closer, I noticed.

Other highlights were For Michael, in homage to Michael Brecker, which had deliberate instability in its two-against-three feel, and in its irregular phrase and sentence length. And a very affecting Round Midnight.

Watts’ latest album has him playing not just with an American trio, but also with the German players whom he brought to Ronnie Scott’s last night. It is an interesting reflection that entrepreneurial musicians in 2010 can lead this double life on the continent of Europe and in the US. For Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, or Don Byas (an influence on Watts, I kept wondering?), there was an either/or choice between continents. Not any more.

The player who made the strongest impression on me in this German group was bassist Rudi Engel. He made unforgettable contributions to Spirit Song and Gee Baby. The bass is a physical instrument, and Engel is a very strongly physical player, in the mould of Mike Janisch (it would be fascinating to see them side by side one day). Arms, hands, fingers are incredibly powerful, it’s an amazing resource to have. And yet he also has flawless tuning, and the ability to lay down time beautifully, clearly and simply. I was really taken.

Pianist Christof Saenger is a highly supportive and fine player with a bright right hand, creating textures out of perpetuum mobile semi-quavers, and drummer Heinrich Koebberling was subtle and strong.

The support band was James Pearson, piano with Sam Burgess, bass and Pedro Segundo drums. They played Ellington tunes. If Pearson deserved the dry Martini he publicly cajoled from the barman – and of course he he did- then fair recompense for Segundo might have been a glass of 1996 Krug for his less-is-more fours on In a Mellow Tone. Segundo was maybe taking a leaf out of rare visitor to London Leon Parker’s book, and deconstructing the drum kit piece by piece brilliantly. Silence. One cymbal rim. A rain stick.

Wikipedia tells me that Pedro Segundo was Emperor of Brazil and known as “the Magnanimous.” I’ll second that.

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