Bobby Watson isn’t trying to start a brawl with his fellow horn players. He’s just wants to make it clear that when it comes to his approach to the alto saxophone he’s a lover, not a fighter.
“The tenor sax is more of a punch horn,” Watson said. “It lends itself towards a tough tone, like Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. With the alto, I try to lean toward melody. Of course there’s technique, but I don’t use that as my main modus operandi. I try to sing my song.”
After several decades as a scarce presence on the West Coast, Watson is crooning with an all-star quartet Aug. 13 at San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest, performing an afternoon set at the Montgomery Theater and an evening show on the Hammer 4 Stage. An incandescent improviser and oft-covered composer responsible for a bevy of strikingly beautiful, recognizable tunes, Watson is reintroducing himself to Bay Area audiences.
Last month he played a gripping weekend run at The 222, a nonprofit performance space in Healdsburg, his first California gig since he retired after 20 years as an endowed professor of jazz studies at University of Missouri-Kansas City. At Summer Fest, which runs Aug. 12-14 at indoor and outdoor stages around the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, Watson is the jazz centerpiece for an expansive roster of artists representing the best of blues, R&B, salsa, an array of Latin American styles, and of course jazz of many stripes.
Aside from his lush tone, what sets Watson apart from so many of his peers is his extravagant sense of lyricism, a sensibility he’s honed by absorbing the alto sax’s legacy from Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges to Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley. His tunes are a direct expression of his fecund imagination and abiding love of melody.
“I don’t set out to write any song at a certain tempo,” he said. “I don’t think about the form. I just let it take me where it goes. I don’t use odd rhythms unless it feels natural. On ‘Mabel Is Able’ there are some time shifts, but it feels natural. The main thing is melody.”
For the San Jose shows he’s joined by a superlative band with veteran bassist Curtis Lundy, who’s worked with Watson as a co-leader and sideman for more than 30 years; pianist Cyrus Chestnut, a prolific leader in his own right; and drummer Victor Jones, a widely traveled accompanist who’s toured and recorded with the likes of Stan Getz, James Moody, Stanley Clarke, Phyllis Hyman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chaka Khan.
It’s the same rhythm section that Watson recorded with on his upcoming album for Smoke Sessions Records, “Back Home in Kansas City,” a band that’s “like a magic carpet,” he said. “You get on and they just fly. This is actually the first time I got a chance to record with Cyrus and be around, though I’ve been knowing him for years. He and Curtis go back to Betty Carter,” the late, pervasively influential vocalist whose band served as one of jazz’s most important finishing schools for young players.
Even the greatest talent scout of the modern jazz era, not to mention one of the most powerful and swinging drummers ever, wasn’t immune from stylistic changes. With the advent of jazz/rock fusion in the late 1960s Blakey’s acoustic hard bop sound lost currency. The Jazz Messengers continued to be a formidable band, but he increasingly relied on veteran players who’d previously passed through the ranks rather than hungry young musicians looking to make a name for themselves. Watson was 22-years-old when joined the Messengers and exactly what the band had been lacking.
“We really brought Art back, I think with the writing and then he had a consistent band that stuck with him,” Watson said. “‘Cause when I joined the band people weren’t writing. They were playing all the old stuff. He was a survivor and if the band didn’t have the spirit, he didn’t force it. But he was always looking for somebody out of the corner of his eye, and it was great to see how the band just steadily rose and got better and better.”
Picking up the Messengers’ mantle, Watson has boosted some of jazz’s most illustrious players, leaving his mark with the searing beauty of his music.