Watson is one of the major soloists of the day, an alto saxophonist of exceptional range whose early career included membership in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as well as the stirring swing ensemble known as Panama Francis’ Savoy Sultans. He has blown minds in Birdland, strode to the fore as a member of the John Hicks/ Elise Wood band, and fit to perfection with some of the best mainstream musicians in Britain. This is in addition to devising a Johnny Hodges/ Billy Strayhorn tribute and leading, among other ensembles, Horizon (and, among other earlier Horizons, this definitive incarnation).
The present quintet is the same incarnation that I heard play in Scotland quite some time ago. Every man was outstanding, and the band set a very high standard—and if, on this disc, it doesn’t quite achieve more than the sum of its parts, the trumpeter and the pianist have become even better during the intervening ten years. They sound better live than on Reassembled or Midwest Shuffle, which was drawn from a series of live performances recorded on tour with a mobile studio in 1993. I saw them soon after that, and the on-stage fun involved some hearty plugging of said CD.
I tend to relate my preference for Watson’s 1989 The Inventor over Midwest Shuffle to the latter’s routine tightness, a musical characteristic Watson may enjoy without being entirely suited to his more expansive style. Pianist Edward Simon arrived in 1989, and between ‘89 and ‘93 the present classic quintet came into being.
Watson can lift his music into another element when he’s really going, utilising a flexible tone of great beauty. His tone here tends, however, to be narrow and never quite ethereal (as it has been at other times)—although it must be noted that he could fall a long way below his best before there was really any company at all. Watson’s alto playing has always seemed to come from somewhere unusual—Willie Smith, even? His sections are characterised by a lightly-edged, almost behind the beat entry into the solo, followed by a weightless forward surge to end up well ahead of the beat. Yet sometimes (as on Victor Lewis’s “Eeeyyess” here) he’s up-up-and-away without apparently having taken off at all (or needing any Scottie to beam him up).
Horizon, as an ensemble, has always had so distinctive a sound that I have found myself citing it in the course of other reviews. The key is really Watson’s arranging. Terrell Stafford was astonishing when I first heard his huge, beautiful open trumpet tone in a concert hall. In his career he has recorded in highly gifted company all across the pre-bop mainstream repertoire (with the marvellous Harry Allen on tenor, for example).
Victor Lewis is a versatile drummer, quiet but powerful when the need arises. Essiet Essiet has a broad, individually propulsive sound on bass, and—a rarity in recent experience with bassists—takes no solos whatsoever on this set. There are no drum solos either.
Watson quotes from “There’s a Small Hotel” during his solo on the opener, his own Latin-influenced “Lemoncello”. Stafford’s trumpet is open—glorious and mellifluous. On “Pere” I suppose it’s Watson’s arrangement that succeeds in producing the very big sound of two horn ensembles. Watson’s playing here is wilder than I’ve heard it, opening the way for a trumpet solo that deserves to be called a full second movement. Simon’s accompaniment is marvellously inventive, as is his solo. With his playing of a strong figure the two horns conclude their very well-composed performance.
“The Love We Had Yesterday” is a composition of Mrs. Pamela Watson. With bows in the direction of Johnny Hodges, her husband takes the track into harmonic and emotional territory that Hodges’ music didn’t. Stafford plays a tender, beautiful interlude and Watson goes toward something near desolation. Jimmy Heath’s chirpy “Gingerbread Boy” is paraphrased with a telling piano riff in accompaniment. After two very proficient hard bop horn solos, Simon takes up the riff and turns the paraphrase into a more melodic improvisation. It’s fresher than what preceded it, and far more satisfying. The fade-out ending returns to the same piano-bass riff, with Lewis tastefully thrashing underneath.
Watson leads off the title tune, and his intensity is matched by Stafford, both in good form. Simon makes a brilliant collaborator to Stafford, and as his own solo develops he elicits a more participatory accompaniment from the drummer. The conclusion is mellow.
The hornmen like “The Look of Love”, and after yet another telling piano intro they caress it together in convivial interaction. Stafford’s open lyricism is again outstanding. He’s really something, and after Watson’s astounding entry and solo he delivers an incredible plunger-muted trumpet solo. Simon follows with great distinction, coining a powerful and distinctive melody in the course of his performance, which is a thing few can do. Written by David Moore, a student of Professor Watson of the University of Missouri/Kansas, “Permanoon” is hard bop. Watson’s performance here is pretty fierce, and Simon again finds unusually interesting things in the course of his contribution.
“Dark Days” features even more in the Hodges vein from Watson, and even more melodic productivity from Simon. The penultimate title is “Dark Days (Interlude)” and stands as a spotlight for Stafford, muted, with Essiet prominent in accompaniment and Simon having another double-time idea. Perhaps this is a sign-off number, before an interval?
The conclusion is Essiet’s “Xangongo”. It’s a sign-off number of the type usefully deployed as an encore. It has a very bright—even dazzling—start, with Watson at the top of his horn’s range, playing his saxophone almost like a clarinet. Then the ensemble enters, with the composition alternating nearly quacking staccato riffs and melodic ensemble passages. The main solo duty is Simon’s, with a small piano concerto movement for the one soloist who has sat down for most of the gig. It plays out with the horns switching from unison to counterpoint as they trade passages.
Watson’s characteristically multi-noted and breezy liner essay speaks of ‘world rhythms’ and references Essiet’s African roots. Fair enough. I’d also guess, based on the evidence presented in Horizon Reassembled, that Watson might be on the way to producing something very interesting as an arranger.