Review : Ernie Watts Quartet at Ronnie Scott’s

Ernie Watts
( Ronnie Scott’s, 7th May 2012. Review by Alison Bentley)

‘Donate to the future of jazz,’ quipped Ernie Watts, promoting his new album Oasis, ‘and receive a free CD.’ From the gig’s opening notes we were racing with him and his remarkable band on an exhilarating journey into what felt like the future of jazz.

Watts has played sax on so many other people’s recordings (from Aretha Franklin to Charlie Haden) that I was intrigued to hear how he would sound with his own band. The first tune To the Point set the pace – we were on a rollercoaster ride, at a dangerously fast swing tempo. His solos featured very fast chromatic runs (nano-quavers?) in the lower register, climbing to a high peak with long, altissimo notes before plunging dramatically down again. The bebop classic Shaw Nuff featured a breakneck, virtuosic piano solo from Christof Saenger, and a duet with Watts- an entertaining high-speed musical conversation. But there was a sense of stillness under the flurries of notes as the band were so poised – and clearly having such a good time! The audience cheered Rudi Engel’s fine rhythmic bass solo. Drummer Heinrich Koebberling’s Japanese-themed composition, Konbanwa,showed Watts’ great skill as a ballad player. Koebberling’s drumming was creative as well as immaculate- the burnished cymbal sounds in Watts’ Oasis, an achingly beautiful ballad, were particularly expressive. Watts played this oriental theme like a call to prayer, the gravelly low vibrato and melancholy high notes invoking the free intensity of Coltrane’s Ascension. He played Mandel’s ballad You Are There with some of David Sanborn’s soulful tones and emotional pull. His sound was rich, deep and throaty, and quite beguiling.

The gig ended with a bang: Cherokee in a minor Afro-Latin feel with a McCoy Tynerish free piano and bass, changing from shockingly fast swing into mellow funk. The excitement came partly from the juxtaposition of perfectly-orchestrated riffs and stops with free-flowing solos. Kenny Werner’s phrase ‘effortless mastery’ sprang to mind.

Ernie Watts didn’t talk much during the evening, but he sounded as if he was speaking directly to the audience through his tenor. In the sleeve notes to his album Oasis, Watts says jazz is an oasis or refuge for him – and this evening was certainly a Desert Island gig for me.

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