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Back Home in Kansas City, the latest recording by saxophonist Bobby Watson, gets better as it goes along, but not because there’s anything subpar about the opening tracks. Instead, the reason can be attributed to a realization likely to dawn on listeners as the album progresses: It’s great to be in the hands of professionals.
The former musical director of the Jazz Messengers, with a list of credits that would be the envy of anyone who’s ever softened a reed, Watson has assembled a crew whose interactions seem simultaneously preternatural and effortless. That’s no surprise when it comes to drummer Victor Jones and bassist Curtis Lundy, who have played alongside Watson for years. But trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and pianist Cyrus Chestnut click just as convincingly, as evidenced by “Bon Voyage,” a Watson original that uses Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” as a jumping-off point. The rhythm section shifts with the tides, setting up a series of solos by Watson, Chestnut and Pelt that are sonically distinct yet equally entrancing.
Classics underpin another pair of highlights: The hard-swinging title track finds Watson creating a new melody over the chord changes from “Back Home in Indiana,” while the tricky movements of “Side Steps” take their cue from John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” But the performances on “The Star in the East,” a Chestnut composition infused with an irresistible sense of wonder, and the lush “Celestial,” penned by Pelt, are every bit as persuasive. And Watson’s “Blues for Alto,” which concludes the set, is a buoyant, open-hearted joy that gives each player an opportunity to strut.
The album’s highlight, “Our Love Remains,” provides a showcase for guest vocalist Carmen Lundy, whose sincerity and simplicity are absolutely beguiling. That’s how the experts do it. — Michael Roberts