Two for Tain!: Jeff "Tain" Watts – Family and Laura Kahle – Circular (2011)

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photo credit: Oliver Link

It’s been a couple of years since we last heard from pre-eminent jazz rhythmist Jeff “Tain” Watts, when his star-studded engagement Watts was introduced. This past April 19, Watts’ own Dark Key Music label trotted out two new records, one by the thirty-year vet Watts, and the first one by an Australian-born pocket trumpet player by the name of Laura Kahle. There’s more that brings these two records together than the simple fact that they are coming from the same record label: they are joined together by holy matrimony.

During the preparations of these records, the Watts and Kahle, who have collaborated on several musical projects in recent years, tied the knot. Watts is understandably proud to see his new bride make her first record, and he threw his considerable talents behind it. So, how has married life been treating these newlyweds musically? Let’s find out…

Jeff ‘Tain’ WattsFamily

After the explosive performances amongst forceful political statements mixed in with some clowning all performed by a marquee lineup in 2009’s Watts, Tain this time strove for a more subdued and reflective tone for Family. “While I was preparing and recording the music on this CD, I got married and I’m trying to start this family,” explains Watts. Joining Watts this time are James Genus (upright bass), David Kikoski (piano) and Steve Wilson (alto & soprano saxophones).

The steadier tone of this follow-up to Watts wastes no time in setting such a pace with the sturdy, mid-tempo groove of the title track, highlighted by a lightly soulful piano solo by Kikoski. Other high points consist of “Goldaze,” where Watts is his usual, propulsive self all throughout. “Jonesin’ (for Elvin)” pays tribute to the John Coltrane drummer with a song that also pays tribute to A Love Supreme-era Coltrane. Genus, Kikoski and Wilson all recall their respective counterparts in Coltrane’s famous quartet without mimicking them. Watts employs a real funky, samba-ish groove for the closer “Torch E-Ternal.” As with “Jonesin’,” there are other songs that were written with specific people in mind: “Little Michael” (Michael Jackson), “Of August Moon” (Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson) and “Edwardian Overture” (the late drummer Ed Blackwell).

Coming down from the highly charged Watts didn’t mean Watts has slowed down at all, but the charms contained in Family are more subtle. With fine performances from his younger and lesser-known supporting players, especially Kikoski, Family is the portrait of a content Jeff Watts, who at this point in his career handily masters the roles of performer, leader and composer.

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Laura KahleCircular

Laura Kahle came to New York from the Queensland state of Australia and didn’t take long to make an impact on the jazz scene there at its highest echelons. She has arranged for both Wynton and Branford Marsalis, as well as various large ensembles, using the music of icons like Gil Evans or her own compositions. Naturally, then, she wrote all the music for Circular. For five of the cuts, she leads a trio with bassist Orlando le Fleming and Watts on drums, and J.D. Allen (tenor sax) and Yosvany Terry (alto sax, chekere) join the trio for five other cuts.

Kahle’s pocket trumpet style sounds right to my ears: it articulates naturally, it swings, and it never sounds forced or hurried. The tone is just right. Kahle gets the right notes placed in the right places because she doesn’t overthink her playing, or at least, it doesn’t feel that way.

Watts performed well enough on his own new CD, but on Circular, he’s spectacular. On the former he plays his signature Elvin Jones/Tony Williams hybrid style but on the latter he modulates his approach more towards Ed Blackwell’s style, which fits in perfectly with Kahle’s conception. You might think otherwise from the opening track “Chance Encounter,” where he threatens to dominate the trumpet/bass/drums performance, topping it off with one of his signature volcanic explosions. But elsewhere, his genius is found in the details: his inventive African-centric rhythms on “Sweets,” for example, is the stuff of legend.

Much of Kahle’s compositions are centered on rhythmic variations on which her husband thrives: “Circular” and the appropriately labeled “Passing The Time” start slow, speed up and slow down again; “Duality” is a tale of two meters that Kahle calmly navigates between like it’s nothing at all. “Daize” has an intriguing approach to improvising by layering in the solos, starting with Terry, Allen than Kahle. “Touch & Go,” the most avant garde track of the album, takes cues from Lennie Tristano and Atlantic-period Ornette Coleman. “Blackberry Garden” replaces the saxes with Monte Crofte on vibes and a vocal turn by the gifted Chilean jazz singer, Claudia Acuña.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Watts is behind the drum kit for these sessions, and that his presence is strongly felt throughout the sessions. But it would be wrong to assume that Circular is a de-facto Watts record where he lent his talents in order to prop up his wife’s first time out as a leader. As producer, composer and primary soloist, this record couldn’t have been remotely possible without Kahle, and she is clearly the primary creative force behind this album. Moreover, Kahle not only wrote the songs, she wrote some very advanced compositions that stretch out the modulations of bop to its extreme, giving herself and the other horn players a wider range of “right” notes to play, and everyone thrived on the freedom her compositions afforded them. Also to be considered is the challenge of coming right out the gate as a horn player with an album with no chordal comping, further exposing her chops and putting more of the harmonic burden on herself. She handled it all like a real pro.

Though Family does not disappoint, the rookie’s record gets the nod out of the two. Even taking into account all the great help she got, Circular is a very impressive debut.

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