Bobby Watson, over a career that began with his meteoric rise to musical director in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at the turn of the 1980s, hasn’t shied away from the political.
Before the newly released Check Cashing Day, written in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, that was traced through trenchant titles on instrumentals like “Forty Acres and a Mule,” “A Blues of Hope” or “Dark Days.” Along the way, Watson became one of the most vibrant altoists on the scene, with a full-bodied tone and a bright improvisational sensibility.
The addition of poet Glenn North to this Lafiya Music release ups the ante, putting Watson’s determinedly activist commentary into actual words. North joins the proceedings, ruminating on the promise of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation during the album’s title track, after Watson opens with the stoicly hopeful “Sweet Dreams.” “At the Crossroads,” a touching meditation, follows — Herman Mehari’s trumpet is a perfect foil, whether doubling with Watson or providing a smart counterweight — and then North is featured again on “Black is Back.” And so it goes for most of the album.
To my ear, however, the instrumental pieces convey more nervy emotion, without the literalism that poetry brings. The addition of verses, no matter their tough-minded realism, seem like a distraction — even when the powerfully emotive Pamela Baskin-Watson’s takes the mic for a striking rendition of “Seekers of the Son/Son.” “The Triad,” Watson’s determinedly hopeful, contemplatively intriguing, endlessly fascinating tribute to King, Malcolm X and Ghandi says just as much to me — without actually saying a word.