Remember when Jeff Beck issued Blow by Blow? It was the culmination of many years spent with the Yardbirds, then his own gig with Rod Stewart, then the post-Stewart years, later Beck Bogert Appice, and finally, boom!, his magnum opus, Blow by Blow, after which the consummate flash player never again scaled such heights (but that's besides the point). Well, A Simple Truth is ubiquitous sax player Ernie Watts' Blow by Blow, the best thing he's ever done despite two Grammys and, just this year, the Frankfurt Music Prize. It's a rich work wrought late in life rather than mid-, as Beck did, and a marvelous collection of disparate songs strung together as though a concept album. The structure of the disc, I think, is the responsible agent for that, opening and closing with bookended tracks co-written with Ron Feuer, centerpieced by the 10:34 Watts composition Acceptance…with yet another co-written cut, A Simple Truth, the penultimate track.
Watts has been on one hell of a lot of albums over a long career (including Marvin Gaye's epochal Let's Get It On), playing in various modalities all rooted in jazz, but this disc takes him beyond all that and into novo-classicalism, imbued with a deeply Romantic mist and pulse informing everything: himself, the environment, and the accompanying players. Not for Watts is the Braxtonian attack mode but rather a well-rounded sound birthed in elder days meeting a finely honed Grover Washington satin finish. Preferring a narrative lyricality, he can nonetheless blow clusters and wail from on high, but there are no edges to his work, nothing threatening, every bar and measure crafted after much thought, even the improv sections well considered.
The synthesis achieved in adopting and melding songs by Jarrett with Gillespie with Childs and others is something I otherwise would've said couldn't have been done, but here it is, a complete surprise. It shouldn't be, Watts is a dexterous individual, but I never expected this for a moment, and pianist Christof Saenger was a superb choice as accompanist, accenting every step of the disc perfectly, anticipating every move and nuance Watts chooses. The center stage is always Ernie's, as it must be, this is solidly a sax gig, but Saenger's brief solos sparkle, adding luster above the comping. There's been an increasing incidence of concept-oriented releases from Black jazz musicians of late, which leads me to suspect there's a groundswell shift occurring in the mode, an interim in which the modus will once again take on new shades - nothing landshaking, abrupt, radical, or self-signaling (that's already been done) but rather a refinement of what was seen in the 40s and 50s, a restatement of renewed purpose. I see A Simple Truth as a part of that movement, and I look back, as I always have, to Anthony Davis and others as precursors.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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