Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Saturday - Jeff "Tain" Watts

Jeff "Tain" Watts might have left Pittsburgh more than three decades ago, playing with Wynton and Branford Marsalis and temporarily landing a gig on The Tonight Show, but he hasn't forgotten his roots. Not his jazz roots, his hometown roots. This was plain to see before he even took stage at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater last Saturday. The front head of his bass drum was emblazoned with the Pittsburgh Steelers logo. Watts engaged the audience between songs with a rapport that was casual and amusing, like an old friend. It made the two-hour show fly by, never seeming like it was anywhere near that long.

The band also included Pittsburgh native David Budway on piano, along with bassist Yunior Terry Cabrera and tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts. They started the evening started with a reading of Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners," one of the few non-originals of the night. When Monk recorded the piece, he forced his bandmates to switch into double-time at unpredictable moments. Watts had the group start the head with a heavy 4/4 backbeat, move to double- and then triple-time. The sound during the early part of the set didn't give Budway a fair representation, but he displayed a playful quality in his solo, as did Roberts.

To keep the focus on the music, Watts frequently introduced groups of four tunes in advance, so the group dug into them. "Farley Strange" gave Budway a chance to do some more Monk-like piano figures. "May 15, 2011" was a slow ballad  in which Watts himself took the place of Frank McComb, who sang it on the Blue, Vol. 1 album. The performance displayed a great lyric, with a genuine sentimentality not always heard in modern ballads. And though Watts downplayed his vocal chops, he delivered it convincingly.

Late in the set, an audience member goaded Watts to play a solo. It was surprising up to that point that he hadn't really taken one. Although his work throughout the set came with a lot of intense punctuation, flash was not the order of the evening. The emphasis was on Watts the composer and bandleader. One song, which I think was titled "Snarkasm" was inspired by snarky, sarcastic people. Watts warned, "it's jive" as he set up the song. And while the melody was strong, he was right about the intro and outro, in which he copped a snooty voice as he "sang" it. Maybe it was just a bit too silly, but the crowd loved it.

The evening's final pack of songs went from wild "Brain Lifter" to a rich ballad dedicated to Watts' late mother. As promised to the loud member of the audience, this section fulfilled the drum solo quota, and it got reverent in the final moments. The sold-out crowd went wild.

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