Bobby Watson has a distinctive tone on the saxophone, a cherry tone, ripe and sweet and capable of turning deliciously dark or sour. That sound — combined with a knack for ingenious compositions and a sense of innate swing — made him one of a tiny handful of essential alto players in the 1980s and 1990s. His years with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (1977-1981) reignited the greatness of that band after a slow patch, and the recordings that followed by Watson as a leader were essential listening. He wrote more than a couple of standard tunes (“Wheel Within a Wheel” is hummable after one listening), and his sound — that gorgeous thing — was immediately recognizable.
Watson was teaching during his New York years, but in 2000 he headed home to Kansas City where he became the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. The recordings kept coming (particularly a string on Palmetto about a decade ago), but I’ll confess that I no longer awaited them with the same excitement I once had. Why? Maybe I’d come to take that great sound for granted.
Made in America comes after a bit of a break, and it finds Watson back with musicians from New York, the top-flight Curtis Lundy Trio. Seven of the 11 tunes are Watson originals, and they are all a treat. Nearly all are musical tributes to prominent African-Americans in various fields. For example, “The Cyclist” is for Major Taylor, a pioneering black athlete born in 1878, and — like so many Watson tunes — it has a circular inevitability in how it unfolds, with a rat-a-tat theme that could be said to bring to mind the teeth on the gears of a bike. Mostly, though, it is a fluid theme that also glides and sprints forward. Pianist Stephen Scott steals this one with his solo, particularly a portion that seems to be climbing a hill, up-up-up, then descending back down to the theme.
Mostly, though you will be listening for that great Bobby Watson sound. “The Entrepreneur” (for Madame C.J. Walker, famed businesswoman) is a sure thing for Watson. The tune is sunny and memorable, but his solo is even better: mostly using his high leaping range, letting the leader spin and dance in midair with his horn. It is a pure joy in the form of alto saxophony. Watson has always excelled at ballads, and “The Butterfly” (for, ‘f course, actress Butterfly McQueen) is a beautiful theme that asks a lot of an improviser. The sensual, open space of the tune lets Watson operate like a master. His swing phrasing is precise and organic, and his note choices surprise and delight.
“The Real Lone Ranger” (for Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. Marshal in the West) is another great canvas. The theme has a toggling form, a couple of hip stops and a funky bass line. On the melody alone, Watson is compelling in both the lower register and a high singing range. But it is Scott who crushes this one, finding every chord change to be an opportunity to wiggle and funkify, turn a simple phrase into something more knotty and wonderful.
A few things here don’t hold up well on lots of listenings, at least for me. “The Aviator” makes generous use of elements of “The U.S. Air Force Song” (“Off we go, into the wild blue yonder”), which is clever at first but seems forced after a while. The closing tune is a version of “I Gotta Be Me”, the Walter Marks tune that was made famous by Sammy Davis, Jr. It’s the least compelling tune on Made in America.
But Watson’s tribute to Davis, “The G.O.A.T.” is quite the opposite: a snapping theme punctuated by Lewis Nash using brushes against his snare to simulate the great tap dancer’s steps. Light, quick, and charming, this tune also sets up Curtis Lundy for a wonderful bass solo. Then Watson puts on the tap shoes for his solo, easy and efficient and building to a climax.
There are moments here where Watson seems to show his age just a bit. His playing doesn’t have the bite it once did, and in a few spots, he wavers slightly. But these are quibbles, overcome by my main impression: that Bobby Watson still writes with logical elegance and plays with joy in his heart. His students — and that includes us all who listen — are lucky to have the good professor lecturing on his horn.