Jeff “Tain” Watts’ drumming style is not generally about understatement, and neither is much else on the fantastic Watts. His quartet—saxophonist Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and bassist Christian McBride—is a supergroup’s supergroup, and their mainstream jazz is muscle-bound and always in hyperdrive. Even “Owed…” the album’s lone ballad, doesn’t reduce the propulsion. Ostensibly a feature for Marsalis’ soprano and guest Lawrence Fields’ piano, it does have a wistful, gentle melody to match those musicians’ delicate tones, but the rhythm still dominates. Indeed,
the combined sound of Watts’ bass drum and McBride’s earthy, percussive rumble threatens to drown out Marsalis and Fields entirely. On the nine remaining tunes, the drummer dispenses with even that quasi-subtlety, and the album does not suffer. The dissonant opener “Return of the Jitney Man” operates on breakneck swing, with menacing counterpoint and sinewy solos from Marsalis (who’s especially inventive and rough-and-tumble here) and Blanchard. “Dancin’ 4 Chicken” replicates the energy, albeit with a more tuneful, gospel-like theme and solos from the rhythm section—McBride bows his bass playfully, Watts mixes mischief with aggression. Watts also takes two full-length solos; “Wry Köln” is essentially ten minutes of a virtuoso beating the crap out of his kit, while “M’Buzai” is carefully structured with dynamics and timbre that nonetheless spark fireworks. Inspired by 1960’s hard-edged Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Watts also adopts some of that record’s high-voltage political charge. The title is Watts’ name, but it also evokes Los Angeles’ 1965 race riots (a rendering of the Watts Towers, one of the neighborhood’s few structures that survived the uprising, graces the CD’s cover). The dark funk of “Katrina James” laments both Hurricane Katrina and James Brown. Watts launches a pointed attack against President George W. Bush on “Devil’s Ring Tone,” which appears twice on the album, as both an instrumental and a skit. The
latter, which finds a man who claims to represent Bush calling Satan to ask for further assistance and hearing musical screams (and a New Orleans funeral march), works quite well despite its datedness and overkill. Still, the album-closing instrumental version is masterful in its sinister, mood-shifting thrust. While ballads and subtlety are as important to jazz as hard-swinging energy, as Watts demonstrates, not every adrenaline boost needs to be tempered with a slow dance.