Artist/Band: The Ernie Watts Quartet
Release date: 2014/05/08
Venue: The Sugar Club
Reviewer name: Ian Patterson
Tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts’ performance at the Sugar Club was a rare treat for Irish jazz fans. In a long, distinguished career Watts has traveled the globe countless times, first with drummer Buddy Rich in the 1960s, with guitarist Pat Metheny’s Special Quartet in the 1980s and from the mid eighties until present times with bassist Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. Yet despite his extensive touring this gig marked only the third time the great tenor player had played Ireland in 48 years.
The previous two occasions were with singer Kurt Elling in 2009 and the following year with Haden’s Quartet West – both times at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. This gig, however, represented the first time Watts has led his working quartet in Ireland.
Pianist Christof Saenger, bassist Rudi Engel and drummer Heinrich Koebberling have played with Watts since 1999 and their intuitive interplay was one of the most striking aspects of a vibrant concert. Visual clues between the musicians were minimal; instead big ears guided the musicians through the changes and in and out of each other’s improvisational orbits.
Koebberling’s animated drum intro announced “Acceptance”, one of half a dozen new tunes aired in the course of the evening from Watts’ latest album, A Simple Truth (Flying Dolphin Records, 2014). First Saenger and then Watts took lively solos, driven by Engel’s walking bass and Koebberling’s in- the-pocket groove, punctuated by cracking snares. The quartet was in the zone from the off, beginning with the kind of energy more typical of a show’s tail end.
The melodic approach to improvisation of pianist Keith Jarrett has long inspired Watts, whose unaccompanied intro to Jarrett’s “No Lonely Nights” danced and soared like a swift in flight. Watts’ language is firmly rooted in the bebop tradition and the modal music of trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist John Coltrane and these colors infused his playing throughout the set. Coltrane in particular has guided Watts’ music-making– and his singular dedication to his horn–and little snatches of Coltrane’s most celebrated motifs lightly peppered his soloing.
A charging version of “To The Point” saw Watts and Koebberling go to and fro in a breathless and quite exhilarating exchange. Watts has simply never sounded better; the energy and dynamics of his solos here and on trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop” belied his near 70 years. Amazingly, after soloing for ten minutes with the frenzied intensity of two dogs fighting over a bone Watts never seemed remotely out of breath. Watts’ wife and partner in Flying Dolphin Records, Patricia Watts explained it thus at intermission: “Every day for fifty three years you go in a room and you do that for two hours…” she said laughing.
For all his rampaging brio, few can hold a candle to Watts when it comes to interpreting a ballad, as the delightful title track of A Simple Truth and Billy Childs’ “Hope in The Face of Despair” demonstrated.
After an intermission–though hardly a rest for Watts who signed CDs in the lobby—the quartet launched into Koebberling’s “The Road We’re On”, an absorbing number of shifting tempos. “Oasis”, the Coltrane-inspired title track of Watts’ 2011 album began with Engel on arco and Koebberling on mallets accompanying Watts’ keening incantation. The gentle lyricism of the main melody gradually gave way to some of the saxophonist’s most electrifying playing of the evening.
Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker’s bebop standard “Shaw Nuff”–a long-standing fixture of Watts’ set lists–provided further helter skelter virtuosity, with Saenger and Watts both flying nine sheets to the wind. The Latin-tinged piano of “Reaching Up”–a classic Watts’ set closer–signaled the final hurrah with everyone chipping in with closing statements. Watts included a nod to saxophonist Sonny Rollins, leading the quartet through a few bars of Rollins’ Caribean anthem “St Thomas” – before returning to the head and sealing the performance with an exclamative finale.
At the end of such a breathtaking performance it was easy to forget that the evening had started with an intimate duo performance by Belfast singer Suzanne Savage and guitarist Julien Colarossi. Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” provided the frame for Savage’s bebop-flavored scat. Singer Concha Buika and pianist Chucho Valdez’ version of the Enrique Fabregat Jodar song “Soledad”–sung in Spanish–and Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor” showcased Savage’s powerful, technically impressive voice and Colarossi’s tasteful comping.
But the evening undoubtedly belonged to the first-rate quartet of Mr. Ernie Watts. Watts’ soulful energy and his indefatigable drive to create continue to inspire nearly half a century on. His legend grows on the strength of such electrifying gigs and records as finely crafted as A Simple Truth. Ernie Watts Quartet at The Sugar Club will dwell long in the memory of those who were there.