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On the Record

Watts, the place, inspires Jeff 'Tain' Watts

The result: an album.

February 22, 2009|Steve Appleford

Jeff "Tain" Watts

"Watts"

Dark Key Music

*** 1/2

It was more than a shared name that first got the attention of drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. Even as a kid growing up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, he recognized something profound about a distant neighborhood in Los Angeles. He knew of those six days of rioting in 1965, but he also knew that Watts was the hometown of Charles Mingus, the monumental bassist and jazz composer whose work was often fueled by the heavier sociopolitical issues of his time.

"I just felt a strong vibration coming out of Watts," the drummer says now. "I always felt a connection to it."

He finds another link with his recently released album, "Watts," a collection of anxious hard bop and blues led by Watts and played by an all-star jazz lineup, including trumpeter Terence Blanchard, bassist Christian McBride and saxophonist Branford Marsalis (with whom he keeps the beat for one of the most acclaimed small groups in jazz, now celebrating 10 years without a personnel change).

On the cover is an illustration of the landmark Watts Towers, but the album is far less about the place than a certain vibe and corner of American history.

"Katrina James," he says, is dedicated to "the two great tragedies of the early 21st century -- the loss of James Brown and Hurricane Katrina." It begins with a big brassy theme and funk bass riff that evoke the Brown sound, before hurtling into overlapping lines from Blanchard and Marsalis that are muscular and soulful.

The spoken-word skit within the brooding "Devil's Ring Tone: The Movie" started as a joke, says Watts, but turned dark and pointed, as a conversation unfolds between a representative of a "Mr. W." and a satanic "Mr. Devlin" about the damage done during an eight-year collaboration. It set a direction for the album. "Once I got into that, I decided to go that way," says Watts. "This was something that Mingus would do, or had done with 'Fables of Faubus.' He wasn't afraid to throw politics into the game."

The content of other songs is purely musical. On the tender "Owed," guest pianist Lawrence Fields mingles with warm, emotional phrases from Marsalis. "Dingle-Dangle" is a play on Thelonious Monk's "Trinkle, Tinkle," a song Watts describes as "really nice to play but the melody can be technically difficult. As a joke to myself I decide to write a 'Trinkle, Tinkle' for lazy people."

Anxious horns blow through "Return of the Jitney Man," a tribute to Watts' father, a construction worker who also drove a jitney cab around the holidays, picking up neighborhood fares in the family Plymouth. Another version of the song appears on Marsalis' upcoming album, "Metamorphosen," due in March.

Watts says there is little difference between a session for his albums and one for the Branford Marsalis Quartet, aside from preparation. The result is always the same: energetic, complex sounds rooted in tradition but aimed at contemporary listeners. "It's nice to have a long relationship with somebody playing," Watts says of Marsalis. "We've built a voice together."

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