Saxophonist Bobby Watson may be best known for his four years with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but his distinguished career also includes work with Max Roach, Wynton Marsalis, Betty Carter, Carlos Santana, Horizon and the 29th Street Saxophone Quartet. He is currently Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.
1) Christian McBride
“Brother Mister” (from Kind of Brown, Mack Avenue). McBride, bass; Carl Allen, drums; Eric Scott Reed, piano; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Warren Wolf, Jr., vibes. Released in 2009.
Before: I like how the drummer is committed to the groove. He’s not moving around all over the place. Is that Kenny Garrett? Then I don’t know who the alto player is. It makes me feel good, upbeat. It’s got a dance feeling to it. And the drummer is holding everything together, so it gives the soloists a chance to express themselves. He’s not trying to chase them. It’s a variation on the blues. It’s got that Les McCann vibe.
After: Oh, so that’s Warren Wolf on vibes. He’s on my last record. I love Steve Wilson. I like his versatility. He’s played with Chick Corea, who I would love to play with. Steve has beauty in his sound but he’s still got the modern edge. And Christian is my heart. I met him when he was 14 or 15 in Philly. He’s like a sponge, he absorbs everything. And he plays great piano. Of course he loves James Brown. This has Eric Reed and Carl Allen, so I see why it sounds like it does.
2) Johnny Hodges
“Sophisticated Lady” (from The Jeep Is Jumping, Proper). Hodges, alto saxophone; Al Sears, tenor saxophone; Emmett Berry, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Billy Strayhorn, piano; Lloyd Trotman, bass; Sonny Greer, drums. Recorded in 1951.
That’s Johnny Hodges, “Sophisticated Lady.” Johnny Hodges is unmistakable. He has a voice and a sound, so it just takes two or three notes. It’s like Miles or Cannonball or Bird. Certain people, you hear two or three notes and you know.
Any favorite Hodges recordings?
All the ballads. And then the early stuff, like “Daybreak Express.” In later years he didn’t display his virtuosity as much, but the virtuosity was there in the note choice and the personification of beauty. And if you look at him play, he looks like he’s somewhere else. It’s not like he’s closing his eyes or squinting or really getting into it. He looked totally detached. But he wore his heart on his sleeve when he played. And he could definitely play some blues. That was easy.
It’s always easy if you know.
3) Orrin Evans
“Faith In Action” (from Faith In Action, Positone). Evans, piano; Luques Curtis, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Bobby Watson, composer. Recorded in 2009.
That’s Orrin Evans playing one of my songs. He comes from a great family of artists and intellectuals. Very well educated. It’s fun to have faith. The guys who raised me all had a philosophy. They were all characters: Dexter, Sonny Stitt, Max, Art, Clifford Jordan, John Hicks, these guys had a philosophy of life. They weren’t always politically correct but they were all telling the truth as they saw it. And Orrin is in that situation right now. I would have never thought about this piece that way. When I was coming up, the cats used to say: if you’re playing a Charlie Parker tune or a Duke Ellington tune or a Monk tune, and if you were playing it the way they did it, even though you thought you were paying homage to them, they’d say “yeah, I hear what you’re doing, but don’t you have anything of your own? I did that already.” So I respect Orrin because he took my song and he did it his way. And he surprised me. The way he framed it was surprising. It’s still a waltz, but the way he interpreted it, it’s as if he had never heard me play it. So it was fresh to me. These tunes of mine that he recorded, we’ve played them on the road a lot of times, but this is what he was really thinking, what he really wanted to do [chuckles].
4) Miguel Zenon
“Residencial Llorens Torres” (from Esta Pleana, Marsalis Music). Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums. Recorded in 2008.
Before: I like this. I want to say Greg Osby, but it’s not him. I hear a lot of clarity. I hear really good technique, but it has the emotion behind it. It makes me want to learn that song. They’re on a journey but it has a melodic side to it and it’s intricate. I would probably have something different to say after listening to it three or four times. It’s got some time changes in there. I think it’s indicative of a lot of things that are being played today. It’s a song that musicians can appreciate more than the average listener. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that but I’m a musician and I need to listen to it three or four times. The musician in me is attracted to that immediately. If someone put that music in front of me, I’d have to take it home and practice it for a few days. I’m not going to sight read that. I think it’s very well done. I think any listener who took the time to get into this, would raise their awareness of what a jazz musician is trying to do. But I wouldn’t play this for someone I’m trying to bring into jazz. I would feed him something else and then I’d drop this on him.
After: I like him. He’s from Puerto Rico, right? Miguel is a very fine musician; he plays the instrument well, has a great sound and a lot of passion. He understands the drums.
5) Art Pepper
“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” (from Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, Contemporary). Pepper, alto saxophone; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums. Recorded in 1957.
Before: [immediately] “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” I know this guy. I want to say Paul Desmond, but I know it’s not. Sonny Criss? Wait a minute. This is an old recording, this hasn’t been done in the last 30 years. It’s the beat, the commitment to the beat. These guys are feeling the swing and they’re believing what they’re playing. It’s not obligatory 4/4. These guys are feeling it from the bottom up. You hear the rhythm section, it’s got that bounce to it. That’s Red Garland. Paul Chambers? Must be Philly Joe, then. Who’s that alto? It’s killing me. I’m gonna be mad when you tell me.
After: Art Pepper. Yeah, this is a classic. Back in the day, whether you were a white musician, or Latin or European, you would go to the well. And Art Pepper went to the well and paid tribute to Charlie Parker and the music of day, then he found his own sound. The way he plays, I know that Art Pepper hung out with the brothers. I’m sure he was tight with a lot of cats. Life was more segregated back then, but the beautiful thing about jazz is that white and black used to get together ahead of the curve. The color line was crossed in jazz decades before it was put into law. And Art Pepper represents that. He could swing, and he wasn’t afraid to hire one of the great rhythm sections of the time and record with them because he had enough confidence in all the homework he had done. He knew he could play. He wasn’t intimidated. Today a lot of people are intimidated by swing. That’s why you hear a lot of straight 8th notes on records these days, but I don’t hear a lot of spang-a-lang. That’s not easy to do.
In your life and career, have you ever felt intimidated?
When I first started working with Art Blakey, I was intimidated because the beat he was putting behind me was so pure, I didn’t want to mess it up. I was scared to hit a wrong note. And I would get too perfect and Art would cuss me out. He would say, “You’re not making any mistakes. I want to hear mistakes.” He said mistakes are the gateway to discovery. I heard Art Pepper at the Vanguard. I was happy to meet him.
6) Jaleel Shaw
“If I’m Lucky” (from Optimism, Changu). Shaw, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; Joe Martin, bass. Recorded in 2007.
Before: The guitarist uses a lot of fingers. It almost sounds like a soprano. This song has a lot of other songs in it, the way it turns and curves. The saxophonist has an expressive sound. What he’s playing really fits the mood of the piece. It’s very beautiful. Larry, you’re really doing me up here.
After: That’s Jaleel? I been knowing Jaleel since he was 13. He’s my man! He plays with Roy [Haynes]. The way the young cats play today is different from my generation, and I’m trying to cop that. They way they make their lines, the intervals they use. I probably play more literal than they do. They use wider intervals to get from point A to point B. But it still has a forward motion to it. I would probably be more linear, whereas they would be more jagged. But at the same time it’s not really jagged, they make it sound smoother. If I did it, it would sound more jagged. Jaleel also has a strong sense of the past and respect, but he’s playing in the moment. He is one of my favorite players of his generation. He’s got fire, passion, and a big beautiful sound. If I were his age, I’d be playing like Jaleel. To me, that’s the way to go.
7) Kenny Garrett
“Giant Steps” (from Triology, Warner Bros.). Garrett, alto saxophone; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Released in 1995.
Before: [laughs] Is that Kenny? So is this with Tain? Kenny has probably had the most influence on all the alto players who came after him. He has a lot of Trane, naturally, the spirit of Trane. He stays in the middle register. He doesn’t go high too much. He uses the bottom of the horn a lot. He plays the alto like a tenor. And he was with Miles, so that makes people pay attention. I hear a lot of guys who want to sound like Kenny Garrett. I have to take my hat off to that. The bassist and drummer are right up in there. Without a pianist it gives him the freedom to play the form. Some pianists can lock you in when they play behind you.
What’s the challenge of playing Giant Steps?
To make it sound easy. People want to make it sound hard, but it’s not that hard. And it can be boring. I think you have to have a certain maturity to play it. Art Blakey said John [Coltrane] could have had a hit with that if he had recorded it slower, because it’s a pretty song. With the Messengers, we use to play it as a shuffle [sings it]. He’d say, no doubling up. Make the tune be what it is. You have to play Giant Steps like you play Blues March. And that opened it up for me. So when it’s fast, I can now think freely on it.
After: I know Kiyoshi. I never played with Brian but I admire him very much.
8) Steve Lehman
“Echoes” (from Travail, Transformation, and Flow, Pi) Lehman, alto saxophone; Mark Shim, tenor saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Tim Albright, trombone; Chris Dingman, vibraphone; Jose Davila, tuba; Drew Gress, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums. Recorded in 2008.
Before: Sounds like Greg Osby or Steve Coleman. The way they set the tune up, it’s not like you have a melody and a solo and then out, you know? And also the time shifts are very clever. So it sounds natural. As I listen to it, I still feel the momentum of the piece. I think they’re influenced by Steve and Greg, definitely. I wonder how far this can go? If I was to hear a whole night of that, I couldn’t take it. Music is as old as the world, and music has a purpose. I don’t care how advanced you get; If you make a chair, and I don’t care how hip the chair is, if you can’t sit in it, it ain’t a chair. Two plus two is four, and you use that same equation to launch a rocket ship to Mars. I have to tell you, this is very cool and very interesting and I’m sure they put a lot of time in it, but I just don’t know where it’s gonna go. I’m not a traditionalist, ok? I like to live in the moment. But music has to have a purpose. Sometimes I think people want to make foot patting extinct. What’s wrong with patting your foot? It’s like you’re writing this for people who have Turrette’s. And that’s cool. I can see that as a movie score behind a scene of some cats running from somebody. It would be a nice scene for the Twilight Zone, and I really dig that music from the Twilight Zone.
After: Don’t know him. Yeah. It’s all right. I heard enough of that.
9) Art Blakey
“Minority” (from Blakey, EmArcy). Blakey, drums; Gigi Gryce, alto saxophone; Joe Gordon, trumpet; Bernard Griggs, bass; Walter Bishop, piano. Recorded in 1954.
Before: That’s Bu [Art Blakey, aka Buhaina). Gigi Gryce’s tune, Minority. Is that Gigi? Is that Donald Byrd? I don’t know this record, but I know Art. He’s one of the few drummers I can pick out; him and Elvin, Max, Tony, Roy. The thing about Gigi Gryce is that he was one of the first jazz musicians to try to own their own publishing. Back in the day you had to give your publishing away. He and Horace Silver and Walter Bishop Sr. kept their own publishing. These were the guys who realized the value of owning your own music. And Gigi paid a heavy price for that. They kidnapped his family, his wife or daughter or something. It was the mafia. They terrorized him. Gigi is not known for being an innovator as a player, but he was an innovator in the business. And he paid a hell of a price for it. And he actually dropped off the scene and went into hiding for a while because his life was threatened. When I hear that tune Minority, I put two and two together. He was a black man, he was in the minority. So that’s what that song is about.
Did Art ever talk about Gigi?
Sure, that’s where I learned all this from. Art could talk, you know? All those guys wanted to share. That’s how I learned about Gigi and Ike Quebec, Miles Davis.
So who taught you to set up your own publishing?
I did. I took the Business of Music course in college. They taught me about publishing and copyrights, so I knew something about statutory rates. I read the books on it and when I got to New York, people tried to beat me down about it. They’d say, [adopts grizzled voice] “Bobby, you’re talking about pennies. You want 100% of nothing or 50% of something?” It’s like that; everybody tries to con you. It’s going on in Congress now. It’s a never-ending battle about this. Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, they really took care of business. They left their affairs in order. There are lots of tragedies but there are also a lot of success stories in this business too. I get royalty checks. I enjoy going to the mailbox.
Name a few recordings that changed your life.
Bird with Strings and that Latin thing he did with Machito, A Love Supreme, Miles’s Round Midnight, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. Every Wayne Shorter record changed my life.
Interview conducted at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, February 19, 2010 for JazzTimes.