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Saxophonist Bobby Watson brings the sparks on 'Back Home in Kansas City'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Alto saxophonist Bobby Watson came up in drummer Art Blakey's finishing school, The Jazz Messengers, and has recorded dozens of highly acclaimed albums since. After decades working out of New York, Bobby Watson returned to Kansas City, near where he grew up. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says he sounds right at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY WATSON'S "BACK HOME IN KANSAS CITY")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bobby Watson on the title track of his album "Back Home In Kansas City." That alto saxophonist always brings the sparks. So does crackling guest trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who sometimes solos on his heels. On that same tune, Watson caps his twisty solo with a helpful hand-off, ending with a shapely phrase the trumpeter can launch his solo from.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY WATSON'S "BACK HOME IN KANSAS CITY")

WHITEHEAD: Jeremy Pelt on trumpet. Leader Bobby Watson is proudly in the jazz tradition. He follows common practice by writing new melodies on the chords to old ones. So Watson's "Back Home In Kansas City" is based on "Back Home In Indiana," and his "Side Steps" on John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." "Bon Voyage" transparently lifts from Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." But then Watson throws a curve. The improvising shifts to a Cuban style montuno, where Cyrus Chestnut vamps on piano. That's Victor Jones on drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY WATSON'S "BON VOYAGE")

WHITEHEAD: The alto saxophone wants to sing. And Bobby Watson coaxes out its sweet, searing and squawky tones of voice, fine-tuning his pitch to make the horn sound brighter or darker. His soul-ups (ph) gallop along, though he can get momentarily sidetracked exploring in the moment. Watson is a real improviser, looking for fresh angles, as on the standard ballad "I'm Glad There Is You."

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY WATSON'S "I'M GLAD THERE IS YOU")

WHITEHEAD: The album title, "Back Home In Kansas City," signals a reaffirmation of old connections. The bass player is Curtis Lundy, a Watson ally since college days. Family ties come to the fore on Bobby's slinky ballad "Our Love Remains," with lyrics about continuity over time by his wife, Pamela Watson. The singer is the bassist's sister those young musicians had backed - Carmen Lundy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR LOVE REMAINS")

BOBBY WATSON: (Singing) Looking back on the years, on the pain and the tears that would fall through it all - our love remains.

WHITEHEAD: Bobby Watson is indeed back home in Kansas City, though that's been true for a couple of decades. It's not like he's just settling in. Certainly the core Kansas City jazz values - a swinging beat, a personal style, and an earthy, bluesy sensibility - are all firmly in place.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY WATSON'S "RED BANK HEIST")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "Back Home In Kansas City" by saxophonist Bobby Watson. On tomorrow's show, Evan Osnos tells us the story of a mysterious Chinese billionaire who emigrated to the U.S. and became a major benefactor of Steve Bannon and efforts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Osnos writes about the man, who promoted his causes with livestreamed videos and a hip-hop song, in an article in The New Yorker. I hope you can join.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY WATSON'S "RED BANK HEIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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