CD REVIEW: Ernie Watts Quartet - A Simple Truth

Ernie Watts Quartet - A Simple Truth
(Flying Dolphin Records, FD 1009. CD review by Andy Boeckstaens)

In a career that began in the early ‘60s, saxophonist Ernie Watts has played with people as diverse as Marvin Gaye, Lee Ritenour and Frank Zappa; he served 20 years as a member of the legendary Tonight Show band, and won two Grammy Awards in the ‘80s. He has led around 20 record dates, and for the last decade has run Flying Dolphin Records with his wife Patricia.

Watts’ first album on Flying Dolphin - Reflections - was a duet with the prolific and versatile Ron Feuer, and it is they who begin this concept album described as “A musical reflection on the arc of a “jazz” day”. The Sound: Morning sets improvised tenor sax against the backdrop of an enticing (synthesized?) orchestral arrangement.

The following six tracks are performed by Watts’ European quartet. Opening with an unaccompanied cadenza from the leader, the lightly swinging No Lonely Nights - composed by Keith Jarrett - sees pianist Christof Saenger, bassist Rudi Engel and drummer Heinrich Koebberling interlock with the apparently effortless ease of a group that has worked together regularly for over 15 years.

Now in his 70th year, Watts combines phenomenal instrumental control with a tone that is both fluid and filled with emotion. It is all played so perfectly that you almost wish for a minor technical fluff or momentary lapse of improvisational taste, but it doesn’t happen. The intensity builds during Koebberling’s The Road We’re On, yet Watts’ impassioned wails never really threaten to extend beyond the mainstream.

Acceptance has a scurrying riff that changes flavour and settles into a more familiar groove; parts of the tune are clearly drawn from Bronislaw Kaper’s “Invitation”. Dizzy Gillespie’s Bebop is taken at breakneck speed and features a thrilling section for sax and drums towards the end. These pieces - delivered by all four musicians with stylish verve - are the highlights of a very fine CD.

The loosely-interpreted jazz day begins to wind down with Billy Childs’ attractive Hope in The Face of Despair. It comes with an assertive gentleness and shows Saenger and Engel at their creative best. When the orchestral accompaniment subtly resumes on the title track, it is reminiscent of the stately music from the later albums by Charlie Haden’s great Quartet West (of which Watts was a loyal member throughout its existence). A duet that mirrors the first track, The Sound: Evening ends the disc with a slightly restless tranquility.

Watts says that he wishes to “Make people feel creating something beautiful”. A Simple Truth has certainly done the trick for me.

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