Incendiary, Articulate Jazz and Poetry on Bobby Watson’s Latest Project
Saxophonist Bobby Watson‘s “I Have a Dream” Project commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic address to the crowd of protesters gathered at the Washington Mall. The band’s album Check Cashing Time pairs many of Watson’s most politically-fueled compositions with incendiary, spot-on, Gil Scott-Heron influenced spoken-word lyrics by Glenn North. The rest of the band includes Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Richard Johnson on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Pamela Baskin-Watson on vocals and Horace Washington on flute. Its theme is that it’s payback time for 200-plus years of slavery.
Sweet Dreams, a wickedly catchy, bitingly bluesy, Frank Foster-ish swing tune with concise solos from trumpet, alto and gently ringing piano opens the album. The title track is a variation on that theme and a launching pad for North’s searing commentary, which elegantly connects the dots between the murders of MLK and Trayvon Martin, and doesn’t neglect to address the prison-industrial comples. As North puts it, “The new Jim Crow has enormous wings.”
The lively At the Crossroads follows a more optimistic tangent, steadily pulsing with a purposeful, determined Mohari solo. North juxtaposes a series of alternately celebratory and grisly images over a more-or-less rubato piano-and-cymbal backdrop on Black Is Back. The band follows that with the bristling, modally-charged A Blues of Hope, with its lush horns, dancing piano and a similarly dynamic, rising and falling solo from Watson.
They go back to jazz poetry with 40 Acres & a Mule, a rather petulant new take on a bitter old African-American mantra: the nonchalant defiance of Mohari’s shivery solo is one of the album’s high points. The slow, brooding Dark Days makes a good segue, guest Karita Carter’s ominously looming trombone paired off against bluesy, pensive upper-register piano, North quoting both Dr. King and Bob Marley. Baskin-Watson sings her Seekers of the Sun, a syncopated, blues and gospel-tinted shout-out to keep hope alive, the band maintaining that mood on the briskly swinging Progress, with its stilletto-precise solo by Johnson.
After a brief, Marc Cary-esque solo piano reprise of the fourth track, the band cuts loose on Triad (Martin, Malcom, Ghandi), Watson’s sailing sax holding it together as individual voices diverge: it’s the most ambitious number here. The band works a brisk Taxi Driver-style clave on My Song, a clever update on the dozens: “I was born in the briar patch behind the old woodshed, held a klansmen by the throat until he was dead,” North intones. Lundy’s brief MLK on Jazz – quoting the King speech that opened the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival – and then his pensive ballad Revival (Ovedia) follow. Baskin-Watson ends the album with Ellington’s Come Sunday, vividly underscoring its gospel roots. This album succeeds as food for thought, eloquent expression of righteous anger and just plain good jazz. If Sonny Stitt desesrves to be in a certain jazz hall of fame, so does Bobby Watson.
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