Bobby Watson

Keepin’ It Real
(Smoke Sessions )

Alto saxophonist Bobby Watson’s quintet keeps it real on this entertaining album by hewing to the general hard-bop format the bandleader absorbed and refined during his stint as music director of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1977 to ’81. Catchy melodies steeped in blues and gospel tropes and grounded in steadily swinging, flavorful rhythm-section accompaniment aren’t likely to go wrong when capable soloists enjoy what they’re playing.

Now 66, and retired after 20 years as director of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Watson represents slickness in its very best sense. His playing is sophisticated yet soulful. He’s elegantly slippery as only a player at one with his instrument can be, stretching phrases seamlessly over nearly the entire length of a chorus and interjecting brief figures with just the right squeal to make his point. Bassist Curtis Lundy, Blakeyesque drummer Victor Jones and sparkling pianist Victor Gould sustain finger-snapping momentum and control the dynamics of their backdrops to vary tunes’ tensions.

Two trumpeters alternate matching Watson well on “Condition Blue” (written by Jackie McLean), “Mohawk” (a revised Charlie Parker tune), “One For John” (written by Lundy) and “Mystery Of Ebop” (a Watson original). The vamp-based tunes here are offset by Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and a sensual rendition of Bill Evans’ “Flamenco Sketches.” Watson’s “My Song” turns, as it should, on all the elements that distinguish the altoist as an invaluable straightahead star.