Jeff Watts’s polyrhythmic drum thunder and propulsive energy have been the driving force behind Branford Marsalis’s world-class quartet for more than 20 years.
Occasionally he makes forays into band-leadership and situates his high-energy conception in the filigree-detail of his own compositions.
His current collection, released under the title Folk Songs, is inspired by acquaintances and colleagues. Judging by the compound time signatures, bendy tempos and quirky constructions the soloists have to negotiate, they must be a complex crew. On the opener, a devious cover of Björk’s “107 Steps”, a simple melody is stretched over an off-kilter bass riff for an odd number of beats before releasing into full-force swing. Lesser mortals would stiffly count to ensure accuracy; Watts’s band sailed over the awkwardness.
The only other cover was of Keith Jarrett’s “Rotation II”. Here the round-toned saxophonist Marcus Strickland and superb, all-bases-covered guitarist Dave Gilmore – a last-minute addition – swapped fragments of melody over Yunior Terry Cabrera’s bass drone. Then a burst of collective energy introduced the elongated, across-the-bar-lines melody, supported by the full fury of a Watts drum solo.
The nine originals presented show Watts to be an underrated composer whose written work matches the complexity and purpose of his playing. The puckish “Ling’s Lope”, inspired by Branford Marsalis, had a straightforward melody, but the notes landed in unexpected places. “Galilee”, written after the death of pianist David Williams, was a full-scale lament and eulogy. Its extended dulcimer-toned guitar intro climaxed with the full, mallets-accompanied quartet.
The only straight-ahead tune of the evening was an audience request,
“Mr JJ”. Elsewhere we got the elastic tempo of “Vibeville”, a brilliant depiction of a drunken stroll; the percussive power of “The Seed of Blakzilla”, opened by thrumming acoustic bass; the compound skip beats of “Katrina James”, driven by gobbledy guitar with body-shaking backbeats emerging out of a multirhythmic mist. In spite of the detail and knowing references, each musician matched the leader’s energy and emotional purpose, improvising without restraint over the most awkward contours.