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Bobby Watson and New Horizon

by Wayne Goins

Keepin’ It Real

Smoke Sessions Records—SSR-2004

Bobby Watson has new ideas on the horizon. The Kansas City native’s latest release, Keepin’ It Real, offers three originals and one arranged bop tune originally penned by the Yardbird himself, alto saxophonist and bebop pioneer, Charlie Parker. Watson’s band and brand are in their third incarnation—the album Gumbo featured the first Horizon band with Victor Lewis & Terrell Stafford, while Horizon Reassembled reunited veterans of the first band. And now there is the New Horizon. Curtis Lundy serves as Bobby’s longtime right-hand man on bass, while the new members are introduced as Josh Evans and Giveton Gellin on trumpet, Victor Gould on piano, and Victor Jones on drums.

Condition Blue, penned by alto saxophonist and Charlie Parker devotee, Jackie McLean is a great blues opener that uses a staccato-stutter rhythm to make its statement, serving notice that the band is here to swing. The rhythm section is tight, with propulsive riffs from Victor Jones to nudge the soloists forward each time around—very much in the style of drummer, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts. Bobby Watson sets the tone with a dazzling bop blizzard, followed by tasty touches from trumpeter Josh Evans and Victor Gould’s efficient yet effective solo.

Bobby says, “I'm always visualizing all these songs.” He imagined this piece serving as not only the opener of his album, but also the opener for his live show.

Keepin’ It Real, Bobby’s musical mantra about his personal demeanor—comes across as a national anthem of love and a confirmation of the self.

“I just woke up one morning and that was in my head,” Bobby reminisced. “Those are my roots—in the church. I'm trying to play things from my past—things that I'm going back to from my childhood.

You can literally hear Keepin’ It Real in the first four notes of this tambourine-tinged gospel piece. A measured, thoughtful solo by Giveton Gellin’s trumpet sets the tone for Watson, who opens his soul and allows the church flows out of him—especially at the end during the shout chorus—as he ends the preacher’s sermon and leads the band into the sanctified ceremony, where there’s dancing between the pews and in the aisles.

Elementary My Dear Watson 2020, was initially recorded on a previous album. It was the first track on the album, John Hicks Quartet [DIW-8023] only then, the song didn’t have a melody.

“When we first did it, on Naima’s Love Song, an album from 1988 I just improvised something,” said Bobby, “I just made a melody up on the spot, and it wasn't really solidified.”

To my ears, it’s probably the hardest-swinging tune on the disc, resonating with a Miles Davis - Cannonball Adderley unison melody overtone and an upbeat So What aftertaste. The shimmering trumpet solo of Josh Evans, on Elementary My Dear Watson 2020, is especially lyrical, as if the song was written for him. Meanwhile, the incessant throbbing of the Paul Chambers-inspired bass line of bassist Curtis Lundy, leans against Jones’ Jimmy Cobb-style drum pattern.

In Bobby’s upper register alto solo, it’s so clean, light and airy, it makes the listener feel like he’s flying. I think it’s his best rhythmically sophisticated solo on the entire disc—it also captures his melodic essence as well as anything he’s done. The piano solo has a serious McCoy Tyner vibe in Gould’s left hand, and the improv-exchange on the fade-out is as much fun as anything you’ll ever hear.

Someday We’ll All Be Free, Donny Hathaway’s classic tune from the 1973 album Extensions of a Man, is the perfect vehicle for Bobby Watson to offer us a sensitive, soulful serenade that falls so easily on the ears.

“You know, when that record came out, that was big, you know,” Bobby said, “I been carrying that song around with me for like, fifty years. I always wanted to do it.”

His singing sax-voice really shines through—you can hear the lyrics and his shaping of the words as he delivers the opening melody. Giveton Gellin’s elegant trumpet solo, on Someday We’ll All Be Free, is perfectly executed before passing the baton back to Bobby, who then carves a mellifluous solo of his own before returning to the plaintive melody.

Bobby Watson totally disarms us with his casual conception of Mohawk, a completely redesigned approach to the early bop tune by Charlie Parker see the 1952 10” LP recording with Dizzy Gillespie on Clef Records. Bird would have never imagined such a leisurely-stroll arrangement of this twelve-bar blues, but no doubt would have appreciated it.

Mohawk’s unique concept came to Bobby while he was working on his 2019 release, of the live album, Bird at 100 with Gary Bartz and Vincent Herring. In an attempt to offer something fresh instead of rehashing the same old bop, Bobby said, “I try to play it as if he might walk in the door any minute, saying, ‘I hear you, man. Yeah. But I did that like eighty years ago. Don’t you have anything of your own?’”

Above the rolling thunder of the Elvin Jones circular style of Victor, the Garrison-inspired ostinato bass of Lundy, and the Tyner-ish left-hand jabs of Gould, the unison melody of Bird’s Mohawk slowly unveils. After unbridled solos by both Bobby and Gellin, the band shifts to a hard, 4/4 swing for Victor Gould’s calming piano solo.

First released in 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington, Bobby’s composition, My Song was previously recorded on Bobby’s album, Check Cashing Day. Recorded with the poetry of Glenn North, Check Cashing Day represents Bobby’s personal statement about politics, social justice, and Black history.

The continuous clock-click of the snare drum, the sinewy ostinato bass pattern—combined with the repetitive melody—collectively creates a hypnotic mantra. The trumpet’s modal-chromatic, blues-tinged solo reminds one of the sound created by trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard recording on CTI Records, in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, Victor Gould contrasts his own warm Fender Rhodes piano underpinnings with a percussive, melodically dissonant acoustic piano track on top for a wonderful effect. This is arguably Gould’s best solo on the album.

One for John (747) - a song dedicated by Bobby and Curtis to their old friend, John Hicks. For those who though it might have been written for Coltrane, the story behind the title is captivating.

“Curtis and I used to rank piano player by airplanes—727, DC9, said Bobby, “John was a 747; that was the biggest plane in existence, and John, he always took off—man, it was like a 747!”

The trumpet solo on One for John (747) from Josh Evans, reminds one of a young Roy Hargrove, another young musician whom Bobby took under his wing when he first entered the scene. And we finally hear a drum solo from Victor Jones—the first on the entire disc—and it’s delightful, brief though it be! In fact, you may have noticed there aren’t a lot of drum, or bass solos on this album. That’s by design—Bobby gave two rhythm instruments plenty room to roam, it’s pre-planned and expertly woven throughout every song.

The band’s version of Flamenco Sketches is so beautiful. It’s a perfect vehicle for Bobby to use his airy, Adderley-esque tone to fly effortlessly above the song’s surface.

“It’s Curtis’s favorite tune,” Bobby said, “he used to do Flamenco Sketches all the time with jazz pianist Larry Willis.”

When Bobby was asked how he approached the song he quipped, “That tune was wide open, you know, there's no melody, right?” He continued, “It's all about feeling and the interpretation and the mood, all you have to do is jump into that.”

Josh’s trumpet solo on Flamenco Sketches doesn’t even attempt to recreate the muted musings of Miles; instead he inserts his own personality. Which actually comes as a relief, since we no longer have to make comparisons or comments about whether it measures up to the classic Kind of Blue version.

Originally recorded on the 1986 Red Records release, Love Remains, Bobby’s composition, The Mystery of Ebop is a wonderful, drum-driven piece cleverly constructed to feature Jones on a tune. The drummer solos throughout the tune—without ever having to solo—it’s one hell of a slight-of-hand trick. The tune shifts effortlessly between fast the half time, swing and montuno.

It’s worth noting that Curtis Lundy’s playing is consistently stellar throughout—no wonder Bobby continues to choose him as his go-to bassist.

“He’s like my partner in crime, you know,” said Bobby, “every tune I write, I think about Curtis.” The duo’s performance on every track is as seamless as ever, primarily due to the way Bobby writes his music literally tailor-made for his bassist.

There’s no question about it—Bobby’s been a baad boy for a very long time. He’s definitely still Keepin’ It Real, and there’s no telling what lies ahead over the horizon.

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