I must confess I’ve lost track of Jeff Tain Watts since he left the Branford Marsalis Quartet. I know he has been active and has appeared on a number of records but his presence in the Marsalis quartet, one of the most definitive jazz units of the past 25 years, is still greatly missed, the band has not been the same since he left.
That loss makes it good to catch up with him once more on record in congenial company as he features on this new quartet record by Troy Roberts, a tenor saxophonist from Australia who lives in the US, the pair joined by pianist Silvano Monasterios and bassist Chris Smith.
Roberts is no newcomer, this is his sixth album as a leader (a regular release pattern began in 2006 with Void, this brand new album coming two years on from Nu-Jive 5).
The material here sprinkles in the very familiar in jazz standards-based fare (for instance ‘Stella By Starlight’ and Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Up Jumped Spring’), plus a slightly distracting nod to the classical sphere with a take on Prokofiev’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 2’. All these are arranged by the saxophone leader and he has also contributed five fetching originals.
Roberts has a big, big sound not dissimilar to Marsalis’ or Joe Lovano’s even and he shares with both these masters the happy ability to convince you the listener that every run he makes has a purpose and a sense to it.
Recorded in a New York studio over a couple of days during August 2014 there is plenty here to engage your interest but I worry how much his approach stands out from the crowd. However. that thought shoved aside Watts is a joy as ever as he feeds in plenty of rhythmic pokes and prods but what he brings to the heart of the sound is more than sheer firepower: like Elvin Jones perhaps in his day, Watts is able to create space and possibilities within the ensemble that transforms it. Roberts’ approach isn’t too dissimilar to Watts’ old boss Branford Marsalis’, particularly on ballads, although he has a slightly more old fashioned way about him (sort of Coleman Hawkins on the slower numbers) and yet he is tonally very persuasive irrespective of perceived modernity or not.
Bassist Chris Smith follows the Eric Revis method to the letter, orthodox straightahead and the double bass sound is very well captured by engineer Fernando Aponte. Pick of the tunes? The wistful Roberts original ‘The Little Things’ caught my ear best and demanded repeated play as did the scrappling swinger ‘Eyes Pie’. The title track at the very end, begun by Watts with a no-nonsense solo, bass eventually sidling in, is full of drive, and drive is something Secret Rhymes has in some abundance.