Keeping’ It Real arrives as a radiant beacon of hope at a difficult moment. Bobby Watson’s strongest album in more than two decades offers indispensable inspiration during a time of societal upheaval and lethal pandemic.
Watson’s first release since stepping down as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City is a vibrant return to form. While each of the recordings he made as a leader during the new millennium is good, Keepin’ It Real is on par with the work that made him a vital star worthy of a six-night stand at the Village Vanguard in 1991.
Performing with a new version of Horizon- trumpeters Josh Evans and Giveton Gelin, pianist Victor Gould, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Jones- Watson revives the robust energy and unencumbered joy of his albums for Blue Note Records in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Watson comes out swinging with an incendiary solo on the opening track “Condition Blue.” His enthusiasm is matched by the fresh-faced pianist and trumpeters and the old-guard bassist and drummer. Unlike the more innovative faction of Charlie Parker acolytes represented by Rudresh Mahanthappa, Watson sticks with tried-and-true bop. The conventional approach works. Watson’s band breathes new life into a stale form throughout Keepin’ It Real.
The album also documents the revival of Watson’s melodic gifts. The title track and “My Song” (the latter piece first appeared in abbreviated form on 2013’s Check Cashing Day) are among the ebullient compositions likely to join Watson classics like “Wheel Within a Wheel” as modern-day standards. A pair of ballads provide respite from the frantic pace. Gould sparkles in Bill Evans’ role on Kind of Blues’s “Flamenco Sketches.” Watson imbues Donny Hathaway’s gentle protest song “Someday We’ll All Be Free” with a sense of profound yearning.
Watson’s playing is so curative that listeners may wish they could inject it directly into their veins. Keepin’ It Real may not be a vaccine for the coronavirus or a solution to America’s troubles, but it serves as a wondrous infusion of fulfilling assurance.
(Original image of a Village Vanguard calendar from 1991 by Plastic Sax.)