BRATTLEBORO—The Vermont Jazz Center welcomes Bobby Watson and Horizon on Saturday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m. Watson, on saxophone, will be joined by Rising Stars Jazz Award-winner Giveton Gelin on trumpet and a rhythm section comprising members of the original group: pianist Edward Simon, bassist Carroll V. Dashiell, and the legendary drummer Victor Lewis.
Horizon is a supergroup that performs straight-ahead, acoustic, hardbop music. According to band leader Watson, his composing style and the group’s sound is influenced by Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, and Sly and the Family Stone. Horizon doesn’t play covers; they definitely play jazz.
But Watson’s concept of jazz is tinged by his love for the grooves he grew up with, the sounds of Motown: a danceable sensibility imbues Horizon.
When Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune reviewed the band’s album Post Motown Bop in 1991, he said “There’s no mistaking the Motown-based harmonies underlying bebop-like melodic improvisation. But the performances go beyond these sources, for everything is presented in a lean, sleek style uniquely belonging to Watson and his quintet … [they] work together with uncommon sensitivity, creating a joyous, pop-tinged sound.”
Memories of Motown
When interviewed by Tom Ineck of the Berman Music Foundation, Watson said of the same album, “Motown created the songs that were the hits for our generation. They were the tunes that we grew up with, listened to and danced to. And everybody still has their favorite Motown song. I’d like this record to create that same kind of feeling that Motown did, but in the jazz idiom. Through this record, I want jazz to grab people the way the funk and soul of Motown grabbed us.”
Watson deftly accomplished this balance by composing and arranging catchy tunes that embodied the essence, complexity, and improvisational vigor of hardbop. His former boss Art Blakey recognized this talent and included many of Watson’s tunes as part of the Messengers’ repertoire.
Watson said, “Art Blakey told me just a few weeks before he died that I should record my tunes over and over again so that they could become standards.”
Since then, several of Watson’s compositions have become classics, especially the sophisticated burner, In Case You Missed It, that is often performed by advanced high school and college ensembles.
Horizon was big on the jazz scene between 1989 and 1994, when the band was supported by Blue Note and Columbia records. Their hard-driving approach to smart, melodically based arrangements was strongly appealing, plus the musicians who made up the band were regarded as some of the best players on the scene.
From 1994-2004, Horizon took a 10-year break. “Everybody went away,” Watson said, “and matured and did records as leaders in their own right.” Horizon toured and released a reunion album in 2004. Since then, they have played a few popup gigs, but now they are really on the road again.
Their 2020 tour, which includes two nights at Dizzy’s in New York City, was highlighted recently in The New York Times by critic Giovanni Russonello: “Since his extended stint in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers that began 40 years ago, Watson has been known as one of the more dexterous and affecting alto players in straight ahead jazz. Here he leads an all-star band with the estimable drummer Victor Lewis as a special guest.”
‘The university of Blakey’
Watson is no stranger to “estimable” drummers — he has recorded with Louis Hayes, Max Roach, Carl Allen, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Ralph Peterson. Most noteworthy, though, was Watson’s ten year tenure as the music director of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with whom he recorded 14 albums and toured the world. He loves telling stories about Blakey, whose band was a training ground for many of the top musicians who came through the “University of Blakey.”
In an interview with the “Jazz Video Guy” in 2014, Watson relays a story about playing a gig at his alma mater, the University of Miami. In a Q&A session, Blakey was asked if he had received any formal education.
“You guys go to school to get your diploma,” he said, “but you come with me to get an education — case closed.”
Of traditional education, Watson said, “the things they don’t teach you at school are human relations, how to embrace humanity, how to be around people that you don’t really care for, how to be an artist, how to read an audience, which song you’re going to play first, a barnburner or something you can build from.”
He specifically addressed how Art Blakey intentionally cultivated a deep respect for the jazz lineage in his young charges; he said that Blakey taught them that “the bandstand was our altar, our sanctuary. So no matter how bad our day was, when we went on that band stand, we left our troubles aside.”
After being replaced by a young Branford Marsalis in Blakey’s Messengers, Watson went on to record hundreds of albums with such artists as Grover Washington, Rufus Reid, Maynard Ferguson, Lou Rawls, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, Kurt Elling, George Coleman, Carmen Lundy, Jerry Bergonzi, T.S. Monk, John Hicks, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Cornell Dupree, Joe Williams, David Sanchez, and many others.
Now a vibrant 66, Bobby Watson is living the life of a respected mentor: In 2000, he was awarded the first endowed teaching chair at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory. He took that appointment to heart: the department is now considered among the country’s top-tier jazz programs.
In the fall of 2019, after 20 years of successfully transforming the program, Professor Watson announced that he will retire in May of 2020.