Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2008: Curtis Fuller

Bobby Watson & Horizon

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This September, Izzy Asper Jazz Performances subscribers are in for an explosive start to the 2008-09 season. Kansas City alto saxophonist Bobby Watson will be in town with Horizon, a band which has been swingin’ people into good health with feel-good jazz for almost twenty years. This has not gone unnoticed: the group was featured on the cover of DownBeat magazine as early as July 1991.

Watson is considered one of the finest jazz educators on the continent. He holds the position of Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri/Kansas City, a position he has held since moving back to his hometown from New York City eight years ago.

As a young man Watson was fortunate enough to learn from one of the best mentors ever: Art Blakey. He was a member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1977-81, also serving as musical director, a position previously held by living legends Benny Golson and Wayne Shorter. While with Blakey, Watson shared the frontline with players like Wallace Roney, Bill Pierce, and a young trumpet player from New Orleans recommended by Watson: Wynton Marsalis. When Blakey and Watson decided it was time for him to move on to his own solo career, Wynton’s older brother Branford got the alto chair.

Horizon’s blueprint is a lot like the Jazz Messengers. After several personnel changes early on, drummer Victor Lewis approached Watson with the idea of being a part of the group. Watson and Lewis, both in their late 30s at the time, assembled three great musicians in their early 20s: trumpeter Terrell Stafford (who wowed Winnipeg audiences at last year’s Clayton Brothers concert), pianist Edward Simon (from Venezuela by way of Philadelphia), and African-born bassist Essiet Okun Essiet. This line-up performed together for five years, releasing such critically-acclaimed records as Post-Motown Bop (Blue Note, 1991) and Midwest Shuffle (Sony, 1994). After an eight-year hiatus in which the members of the group explored their own projects, they reunited for the appropriately-titled Horizon Reassembled (Palmetto, 2004).

Horizon Reassembled continues in “the post-Motown bop” vein Horizon is known for, but as Watson points out, they are playing with an added maturity. With compositional contributions from most of the band, everyone brings their own personality to the record. The opening track, Watson’s “Lemoncello,” introduces the band with a funky swagger and intricate counterpoint from the frontline before kicking into a driving swing for the solos. “Pere” is Simon’s composition, an odd-metre Afro-Cuban number that climaxes with an explosive solo from Lewis. Lewis’ perfectly-titled “Eeeyyess” stays exuberant the whole way through with its funky, quasi-Birdland vibe. The record closes with Essiet’s “Xangongo,” an energetic offering that recalls the sound of 70s Samba records, but with a modern, rhythmically-complex (the tune is in 9/4), yet relaxed feeling—it’s a great send-off.

Horizon also puts their signature on an old favourite, Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” first recorded in 1964 on Heath’s On the Trail and immortalized on Miles Davis’ Miles Smiles in 1966. The energetic record does pause a couple of times to catch its breath, allowing the band to showcase their ballad artistry on “The Love We Had Yesterday” (written by Watson’s wife Pamela) and “The Look of Love” (from the oeuvre of Burt Bacharach).

Watson’s latest project, From the Heart (Palmetto, 2008), features a new crop of young players, while expanding the instrumentation to include vibraphonist Warren Wolf. Other than bass player Curtis Lundy, who was one of the founding members of Horizon, the rest of the Live & Learn band are in their twenties or early thirties, and Watson clearly encourages all of them to contribute compositions to the group. The album uses Watson’s infectious combination of funk and swing to great effect while maintaining the cutting-edge sounds one has come to expect of him. The record is well worth checking out.

If you break Bobby Watson down into the core ingredients of a well-rounded jazz musician, you find that he is way more than adequate in every category. He has recorded over 100 of his own original compositions—and published several small group and big band charts. He is well-respected as an educator. He can swing like nothing else, using his own brand of contemporary bop-based improvisation. When Bobby Watson hits the Berney Theatre this fall, we’re in for a good time!

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