Bobby Watson: Back Home In Kansas City

The former Blakey altoist plays with Jeremy Pelt, Cyrus Chestnut and others to mark his two-decade hometown gig as director of jazz studies

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I only belatedly discovered that alto saxophonist and composer Bobby Watson first played in his hometown of Kansas City before joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as musical director in New York in 1976. He’s a consummate musician, his tone and style having shades of Jackie McLean and Cannonball Adderley. Watson’s previous albums (with small groups) include Love Remains (1986), Post-Motown Bop (1990) and Present Tense (1991).

A versatile and flexible performer, with admirable improvisational skills, he early developed a distinctive sound. His many albums for a variety of labels – including Blue Note, Red, Enja, and Columbia – established his deserved reputation as a major figure, equally at ease in free jazz, hard bop and straightforward swing contexts.

This release, although recorded in New York, celebrates his return to Kansas City in 2000 as director of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. It places him in congenial company, including his long-time collaborators pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Jones. Guest trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and vocalist Carmen Lundy bring their considerable talents to the date.

Watson discovered that with his semi-retirement coinciding with the Covid pandemic, he had ample time to reflect on the city’s rich musical heritage. He explains that “being out here . . . has given me a chance to slow down and go deeper into what I want to play. The Kansas City audience is a sophisticated audience because of the history of this town. This album is about the singing quality of my instrument.”

Nine of the 11 titles were composed (or adapted) by Watson or his cohorts. The joyous opening track (based on Bird’s Donna Lee), has Watson and Pelt in perfect rapport, responding to each other from start to finish. The Victor Jones composition Red Bank Heist again features a high-noting Pelt, followed by a blues-drenched Watson solo and a moody Chestnut excursion with earthy rhythmic support.

Carmen Lundy’s vocal on Our Love (co-written by Watson and his wife Pamela) receives his deserved commendation that “she’s not just singing the melody; she’s putting it out there as a story.” In fact, all of the compositions tell their respective stories cogently and persuasively. Dear Lord, a Coltrane original and Chestnut’s A Star in the East are particularly impressive.

The last two tracks – I’m Glad There Is You and Blues For Alto – are extended features for Watson’s sensual (and sensitive) solos – clarion clear on Glad and declamatory on Blues For Alto – with all the cats joining in. This CD is highly recommended, and if you want to actually see as well as hear a congenial group happily making rewarding music then see this example:

The Watson band at work on Back Home In Kansas City

Discography
Back Home In Kansas City; Red Bank Heist; Our Love Remains; Bon Voyage; The Star In The East; Mind Wine; Celestial; Dear Lord; Side Steps; I’m Glad There Is You; Blues For Alto (65.50)
Watson (as); Jeremy Pelt (t); Cyrus Chestnut (p); Curtis Lundy (b); Victor Jones (d); Carmen Lundy (v) on Our Love Remains). New York City, 5 April 2022.
Smoke Sessions Records SSR-2205