Monday, October 12, 2009

CD of the Day - "Kobie Watkins: Involved"

CD of the Day
Kobie Watkins: "Involved" (Origin) 2009

No jazz standards in the program. No household jazz stars on the credits. But it's not a problem on Kobie Watkins' debut solo album, "Involved," recorded in 2006 but only now released by the Origin label. It's a top-class 5-star rating project, full of great performances and fiery solos, mostly by saxophonists Jarrard Harris & Geof Bradfield.
From the opening tune, the stunning hard-bop "Spastic" (written by Harris), you know you are in for a treat. My two personal favorite tracks, both featuring excellent Fender Rhodes solos by James Austin and Ron Perrillo respectively, follow: "Expressions" (composed by Kobie himself) and "Sonny Like," co-written by the leader with the album producer, Harold Mims, who also wrote "Third Pew" and the explosive "Congo." Mims also appears as a keyboardist, adding strings sounds to a jazzy version of Stevie Wonder's "Taboo To Love."
Throughout the album, there's also impeccable work by bassists Clark Sommers, Dennis Carroll and Josh Ramos, as well as by trumpeter Pharez Whitted, trombonist Teris Ramson, pianist Ryan Cohan and veteran guitarist Bobby Broom. But, along with Watkins, the sax players are the ones who shine most of the time, with Jarrard Harris' silky tone on the soprano being featured on "Affectious" and "Movin' On," which closes the session with Kobie showcasing his talents as a percussionist, overdubbing multiple instruments.
The CD also includes an invigorating reading of trumpeter Kenny Dorham's “Short Story,” which shifts back and forth between Latin and swing grooves. “It’s a great drummer-friendly tune,” Watkins says. “It’s not too fast; it’s not too slow. It’s a fun tune for any jazz drummer to play.”
"Involved" represents a great sonic journey too, thanx to the bright engineering of Brian Schwab & Boris Strepacki. In all aspects, a brilliant album, destined to take the career of Sonny Rollins' current drummer to another level of international recognition.

Kobie is doing a CD release event at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago tonight, Oct 12, at 8pm & 10pm, with Bobby Broom, Pharez Whitted, Jarrard Harris, Ryan Cohan & Clark Sommers.
One of the most versatile drummers on the planet, equally adept at playing jazz, gospel, and R&B, Kobie Watkins was for many years among the most in-demand drummers in Chicago. Guitarist Bobby Broom, pianist Ryan Cohan, vocalist Kurt Elling, and other Windy City greats kept the drummer in steady work before his moved to New Jersey in 2007, then to North Carolina in 2009, although he still returns home to play when he’s not busy touring the world with Sonny Rollins.

Rollins first hired Watkins in 2006, as a substitute for his then-drummer Victor Lewis. Since 2008, however, Watkins has been the tenor saxophone titan’s regular drummer, and his percussive virtuosity has been experienced by audiences at festivals and in concert halls around the globe.

Watkins’s visibility in the jazz world is further expanded by the release of "Involved," his first CD as a leader. Recorded at three sessions in October 2006 during a visit to Chicago and issued by Origin Records, the label for which Watkins has also made three CDs as a member of the Bobby Broom Trio, the disc showcases the drummer’s command of a number of grooves, from the free-flowing, up-tempo swing of “Spastic” and the backbeat-anchored syncopations of “Sonny Like” to the Latin-tinged rhythms of “Expressions” and “Congo,” the time-signature shifts of “Affectious,” and the gospel-shout beat of “Third Pew.”

The drummer surrounds himself on "Involved" with some of Chicago’s finest players: soprano and alto saxophonist Jarrard Harris, soprano and tenor saxophonist Geof Bradfield, trumpeter Pharez Whitted, trombonist Terris Ransom, pianists James Austin, Ron Perrillo, and Ryan Cohan, and bassists Clark Sommers, Dennis Carroll, and Josh Ramos, as well as guitarist Bobby Broom, Watkins’s bandmate in the Sonny Rollins Sextet. Harold Mims, Watkins’s onetime classmate at Northwestern University, produced the CD and played the synthesized strings that underscore Broom’s reading of the Stevie Wonder ballad “Taboo to Love.” Watkins plays trap drums on all of the 10 selections, excepting “Movin’ On,” which highlights his hand-percussion artistry on congas, egg shakers, shekere, cabeza, and claves. He also overdubs egg and tubular shakers on “Expressions” and tambourine on “Third Pew,” a Mims composition that harks back to Watkins’s teenage years as a drummer at his father’s church.

Watkins wrote “Expressions,” “Affectious,” “Movin’ On,” and, in collaboration with Mims, “Sonny Like.” The melody of the latter song came to Watkins in a dream after he’d listened to some of Rollins’s recordings; Mims later put harmonic changes to it. Mims also penned the rhythm-charged “Congo.” Jarrard Harris wrote “Spastic,” of which Watkins says, “The melodic motif is everywhere all the time. It allows me to be free within a form.” Ryan Cohan composed “Gentle Souls,” a ballad feature for Geof Bradfield’s tenor saxophone.

Watkins, who has three brothers and four sisters, was born in Chicago on July 26, 1975. His interest in music was sparked at around age three when he first saw his father playing drums at a local Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God. Prior to devoting himself to religion, Alious C. Watkins Jr. had played trap drums and other percussion instruments with the Pharaohs, a now-legendary jazz-funk group in which Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White had been the original drummer, and he also backed the Dells on local engagements. His dad’s drumming led Kobie and his brothers to bang on pots and pans around the house. Kobie took up trumpet in fourth grade, played it in the jazz band while attending Orr High School, and later used it in his work as an elementary school music teacher in Joliet, Illinois, where he also played oboe, flute, clarinet, trombone, tuba, and French horn in order to demonstrate them to his fourth- and fifth-grade students.

Alious bought a toy drum set for Kobie when he was nine and a real one when he was 12. Kobie shared the set with his younger brother Asa (who remains active as a drummer in Los Angeles), and they began playing it in church, where their father had become pastor. The lessons learned from playing for a Pentecostal church choir continue to inform Kobie’s playing.

“The intuitive part that goes with gospel drumming is making sure your eyes and ears are in tune with whatever’s happening in front of you,” Watkins explains. “Those are probably the most important things that I have learned with music in general, especially in jazz. When people tell me that jazz is all you need, I’m, like, wow!

“A lot of times with gospel music, it had to be in the moment. You had to be there spiritually and musically. That was probably the hardest musical experience I feel I’ve ever had, especially as a kid. If you don’t play correctly, they will put you off the drums right in mid-song. They will point to someone else and tell them to get on the drums. It’s happened to me. If the shout beat is not right, they’ll throw you off. It’s one of the most devastating things that can happen to you as a kid, but you also learn and your skin toughens. It’s worse than being out in the jazz community, or being out in the world anywhere, because at least they give you a better chance.”

Watkins’s early heroes were all professional gospel drummers: Dana David with the Winans, Michael Williams with Commissioned, Joel Smith with the Hawkins family, and Kevin Brunson with the Thompson Community Choir. He also cites Chicago gospel, blues, and jazz drummer Kenny Coleman as an early favorite. It wasn’t until Watkins was in high school that he started listening to Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers, and other jazz drummers.

Watkins played his first professional engagement in 1997 with pianist Bethany Pickens and went on to play and record with her, her father Willie Pickens, trumpeter Orbert Davis, saxophonist Jarrard Harris, pianist Ryan Cohan, guitarist Bobby Broom, and other Chicagoans. Watkins also played reggae with James Cameron and the Sunshine Festival, gospel music with Kim Burrell, and R&B and neo-soul with Julie Dexter, Kendra Ross, and Javier. He balanced his gigs, which averaged three nights per week, with his studies at Vandercook College of Music (from which he earned a B.A. in music education in 1999), his three years as a elementary school music teacher, and his graduate studies at Northwestern University (from which he earned an M.A. in jazz pedagogy in 2003). He has also taught at Chicago State University, the Thelonious Monk Institute, and Christian Teen Camp in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Recommended to Sonny Rollins by Bobby Broom, Watkins auditioned for the legendary saxophonist in February 2006 while in New York City attending a conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators. Besides Rollins, the musicians at the audition were trombonist Clifton Anderson and bassist Bob Cranshaw.

Watkins arrived an hour and a half early to the audition. “I was somewhat nervous and somewhat curious,” he recalls. “Once we started, there was no tension from anyone. Everyone was just playing like we had been playing for awhile. It was a very comfortable situation.

“Bob Cranshaw got off his stool and gave me a big hug. And then Sonny took me out into the hall and talked to me. He said I should work on the calypso and listen to his recordings. He said, ‘Keep thinking about the music.’ That was really inspirational. He was like, ‘I will be calling you.’ It seemed as if he was saying, ‘Wait by the phone.’”

The phone rang more than a half year later, and Rollins hired Watkins for two engagements in November 2006. There were a few more dates in 2007, until Rollins let him go in July of that year. “I didn’t leave on bad terms,” the drummer says. “It was like a musical decision he was making. He was able to explain what he was looking for.”

Then, in 2008, Watkins got “the call,” as he puts it, and he’s been Rollins’s regular drummer ever since. “It is very intense, very energetic,” he says of playing with Rollins. “You have to have a lot of energy. You should always come prepared to listen. You have to come in with intense, focused energy all the time. That way he knows that you’re on board.”

Watkins, who in January 2009 moved to Burlington, North Carolina, to be with his fiancée Allison, has over the course of a decade gone from being one of the most valuable players in Chicago to becoming a member of jazz’s major league. And, with the release of "Involved," he now emerges as a bandleader, composer, and recording artist of the first order.
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When not touring with Rollins, Kobie Watlins is a current member of the Bobby Broom Trio. In fact, he has been playing with guitarist Broom for 8 years and is on the last three Broom Trio recordings. Recently, they have been touring throughout the U.S. in support of their latest trio CD, "Bobby Broom Plays for Monk".

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