By Jeff Cebulski
Albums led by Kobie Watkins and Scott Anderson demonstrate the continual heritage and evolution of jazz quintets.
The Kobie Watkins Quintet - Movement
Kobie Watkins, Drums Set and Percussion
Jonathan Armstrong, Tenor and Soprano Saxophone
Ryan Nielsen, Trumpet and Flugelhorn
Justin Nielsen, Piano and Fender Rhodes
Aaron Miller, Upright Acoustic Bass
The Nia Quintet. Nia Quintet: Music by Scott Anderson
Scott Anderson, Trumpet and Flugelhorn Dan Nicholson, Alto and Tenor Saxophones Paul Mutzabaugh, Keys, Organ and Percussion
Patrick Williams, Bass
Jon Deitemyer, Drums and Percussion
Scholz Productions, 2018
Being a sucker for quintets, I was naturally interested in reviewing two recent releases led by Chicago-bred drummer Kobie Watkins and Chicago-in-residence trumpeter and composer Scott Anderson. In this case, viva la difference. Watkins’ ‘Grouptet’ is a miracle of sorts, conceived during a clinic in Idaho and manifested in North Carolina. Anderson’s Nia Quintet is strictly a city ensemble, evolving with changes in its lineup that provide compositional nuances for Anderson.
Watkins’ album Movement with his ‘Grouptet’ clearly catches this group in the throes of newfound playing joy. The effervescent performances of mostly post bop themes make this album less retro and more present, with the tag teaming of saxophonist Jonathan Armstrong and trumpeter/flugelhornist Ryan Nielsen a special treat. Moments of this recording hearken the spirit of the Morgan-Shorter duo in Art Blakey’s Messengers, or perhaps Brownie and Land/Rollins.
The album begins with “Catch This,” a Latinesque post-bop splash that is sure to get a crowd’s attention. Right away one gets the impression that the album cover photo, showing the band as compadres, is accurate. Armstrong and Nielsen crisply engage in the bright horn chart, in a song designed to evolve into a cacophony of delight. All the while Watkins, the center of support, travels broadly within his drum kit, never really getting in the way but commanding attention with rim musing and timely raps.
The horn companionship continues during “The City,” more post bop that features an engaging and muscular piano solo by Justin Nielsen. Nielsen’s comping and the deep-wooded work of bassist Aaron Miller really dig in as the horn solos emerge, giving this reviewer the impression that Watkins, ever colloquial with his sticks, was compositionally morphing the productions of Kenny Garrett, especially reflecting the spirit of Beyond the Wall. Later, “Falling Upward” has the same vibe, with Watkins’ rolling fills backing a dramatic thrust of horns and Nielson’s sumptuous chords, ala Tyner via Mulgrew Miller.
The song melodies are attractive, but what keeps the listener attentive are the arrangements. “Movement,” the third selection, begins with a pleasant, swinging refrain that is interrupted by a contemplative Justin Nielsen solo that leads to a more intense bridge to more horn interaction. Movement, indeed.
In a more classic quintet mode, “Inner Motion” demonstrates the personae of the group’s main players more vividly. Placed on a bed of electric keyboard and deep blue bass, this melodic concoction stretches out to give ample room for improvisation.
“Rivet,” with the Fender Rhodes and a slightly-off center trumpet-sax chorus, points back to that tweener period in Miles Davis’ discography, when Herbie electrified the increased abstract modality. Armstrong delightfully simulates Wayne Shorter as the tune lopes forward.
And so on, even with another version of “Manteca” performed. Throughout, Watkins endeavors to balance his leadership presence with the need to support his players, and he generally succeeds. This group is all in—a post-bop delight.
As for the Nia Quintet, Anderson’s compositions, as usual, dominate the proceedings. In the case of Nia Quintet: Music by Scott Anderson, his propensity for more contemporary themes that borrow motifs from pop and Midwestern folk/r&b is enhanced by the addition of keyboardist/organist Paul Mutzabaugh, whose own recent recordings feature him on guitar as well as keys, playing what I will call ‘folk ambient’ instrumentals.
You can hear the influence in practically every solo and comp Mutzabaugh contributes to this album. Anderson, a composer worthy of attention, likes to write for his musicians, and this new album is no exception.
Early on, Mutzabaugh’s organ provides fills that take me back to people like the bluesy pop artist Al Kooper. “Asian Dominoes, Part 1” settles into a satisfying r&b groove held together by drummer (and one of Chicago’s best) Jon Deitmeyer and Mutzabaugh’s keys. Dan Nicholson provides a meaty Michael Brecker-like sax solo before Mutzabaugh adds a synth expression. This tune seems to end early, though, leading to another seemingly truncated statement, “Asian Dominoes, Part 2,” which is not like “Part 1.” Mutzabaugh plays straight up piano in his intro, leading to Anderson’s first solo, a crisp cadenza with lots of contrapuntal Latinesque support from everyone, including Deitmeyer and bassist Patrick Williams. Nicholson and Anderson are tracked in an echo response…and then the song ends. This reviewer wanted more.
Given the contempo feeling of many selections, one wonders what this group would do with a versatile singer. “Here We Are,” in my view, demonstrates how good this band would be in this regard. Everyone is on top of their game here in providing music that could clearly support and embellish a vocalist. Nicholson’s solo is as smooth as silk, and Deitmeyer’s r&b rhythm propels this pleasurable excursion. “Chihiro” continues this vibe, and Mutzabaugh’s piano solo reminded me of Bruce Hornsby, with Williams’ dancing bass support along for the ride.
As the album moves on, Mutzabaugh’s various keyboard contributions are more nuanced, with bits and pieces splashed among the measures, flakes of embellishment on these cakes of melody. The refreshment of “A New Day” has brief moments of electronic grit at the start and within the piano solo; “Revisited, Part 2” features Anderson’s bright expression on top of a faint Calypso beat that upholds organ bleats before moving to a more placid mood led by Nicholson’s balladic crooning upon a synth/piano bed.
These two quintets are miles apart, literally and musically. Yet both deliver well within their chosen genre. Quintet jazz is, for sure, a continual wonder, especially under the influence of these leaders and their musicians.