Review: Bobby Watson at Kings Place

Bobby Watson at GMF Saarwellingen 2012.
Photo Credit: Melody McLaren. All Rights Reserved


Bobby Watson (Kings Place Hall One, 30th March 2013. Part of second Global Music Foundation Easter Jazz Weekend. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Pope Benedict XVI has done it. So has Queen Beatrix. Both this year. Queen Elizabeth II hasn't....yet. They've decided that the time has come to pass leadership down to a younger generation. Sooner or later, Sonny Rollins will perhaps decide that the mantle of "greatest living improviser" needs to be handed on. And, if and when he does, the question will surely arise (some will argue - with reason - that it is not worth asking in the first place) as to who the potential inheritors of the title might be. On the strength of Bobby Watson's stupendous Kings Place Hall One debut last night, he will be in there, and with a very strong claim indeed.

This was an outpouring of genius. Right from the start of his first number, Coltrane's Cousin Mary, the strength of the ideas which bubbled forth, the mesmerising flow of sound, the length of paragraphs in which he thinks, the intricacy of the lines, all was the work of a true master of this craft. It was a short set, and he also chose to reduce his workload by sharing the front-row limelight with fellow Jazz Messengers alumnus Jean Toussaint. And yet the impressions he left, both of the uniqueness of his voice, and of his total command of the idiom were indelible.

Watson was in London as part of the faculty at the Global Music Foundation's second annual Easter Workshop at Kings Place. The holder of an endowed lifetime professorial chair in his native Kansas city, Watson works extensively as an educator. His approach to teaching is to be consistently generous; last night he was cueing in the applause after almost every solo by another band member. He also likes to use his lifelong experience of the bandstand to give the context to learn,(as explained here on video, from about 6: 45).  This approach also informs the way he takes the lead on the bandstand. Even with a relatively unfamiliar band as last night, he wants to be on an exploratory journey, to shape the flow of the music, to take each evolving number and move it forwards in unpredictable directions.

One particularly fascinating sequence was a freely improvised transition from Watson's own composition Time Will Tell, (which he recorded as a 23-year old rookie Jazz Messenger after three weeks in the band) to a ballad-tempo These Foolish Things. The transition encompassed whole group free improv, circular-breathed gurgling a la Evan Parker, a flamboyant solo cadenza, and then a knowingly tame and tantalizing approach to the poised tempo of the new tune.

Bruce Barth, Chris Hill, Jean Toussaint, Bobby Watson, Stephen Keogh
Kings Place, 2013. Photo Credit/ Copyright: Roger Thomas 

In pianist Bruce Barth, Watson had the ideal foil. Barth is one of those pianists who makes the whole compass of the piano resonant and expressive. Even a simple figure like a repeated four-note vamp to introduce Duke Pearson's Jeannine had an expectant thrill about it. Barth, in the manner of John Taylor, has often set up a new mood and texture before you're even aware he's left the last one. He's also intensely, positively rhythmic. The complete player.

Bassist Chris Hill is a forceful, creative, deeply musical jazz player whose other commitments make his appearances in the jazz context in London understandably rare - and all the more welcome when they happen. Stephen Keogh is not just a fine drummer, but also the driving force behind the Global Music Foundation. He was responsible for planning the whole weekend of education and the concerts, and therefore, notably, presenting the audience with the evening's new discoveries and pleasant surprises.

A good piece of programming was to give the first set to Pete Churchill as singer/pianist.  It showed this aspect of Churchill's astonishing musicianship to a new audience, larger than is to be found in the normal club setting. A highlight was 'I'm Through With Love', sung with communicative eloquence and poignancy by Churchill, providing a fine opportunity for Canadian trumpeter Kevin Dean - another figure who is very little known here - to display his beguilingly light, clear tone and his clean improvised lines. Precise yet endlessly creative Italian drummer Francesco Petreni was showcased on Duke Ellington's Do Nothing Till you Hear From Me. And this fully professional context saw young bassist Flo Moore assert through her playing that timeless truth about music college which RCM professor Basil Tschaikov once told the young Rick Wakeman: "Some people have already finished the course before they've even started."

The concert segued into a jam session in Hall Two, kicking off by bringing something of a Prague spring to chilly London. Vocalist Zeuritia kicked off with Jobim's Chega de saudade (No More Blues) in fabulously idiomatic Brazilian Portuguese – who'd have guessed she wasn't Brazilian? - with fine solos from Barry Green on piano, and from her fellow Czech, top-flight guitarist Libor Smoldas. 

In one evening, then, the Global Music Foundation weekend brought Pete Churchill's singing to a wider audience, shown a London audience some fine artists almost completely unknown to audiences here – Dean, Smoldas, Petreni – and sat a privileged audience down to witness one of the very greats, Bobby Watson.

ead John Fordham also reviewed it for the Guardian

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