Mussing Up a White-Linen-Tablecloth Vibe With Jazz Provocation
Jeff (Tain) Watts’s Quartet Opens Series at Minton’s
By NATE CHINEn
APRIL 13, 2014
The standout tune in the early set at Minton’s in Harlem on Wednesday night was a new one, “Brainlifter,” composed by the drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts and briskly demolished by his four-piece band. Built over a gear-shifting groove, it was a maze full of trapdoors through which Mr. Watts and his crew barreled with aplomb. Only during a forcefully swinging tenor-saxophone solo by Troy Roberts did the action on the bandstand begin to feel like a developing story rather than an unassailably sturdy truth.
That sharp, provocative moment seemed strangely out of tune with Minton’s, which in its current incarnation is an upscale supper club, plush and inviting but also girded with a self-conscious, white-linen formality. (Jackets are required for men.) The club owner is Richard D. Parsons, a former Citigroup chairman; its restaurateur is Alexander Smalls, an ambassador for what he calls Southern revival cooking. The atmosphere suggests a highbrow departure, or maybe just a stylish upgrade, from the club’s storied origins as Minton’s Playhouse, which in the early 1940s was a hub and crucible for the modern jazz style that would be codified as bebop.
Since opening last fall, the new Minton’s has featured hands-on music supervision by Danny Mixon, a veteran pianist and lifelong Harlem resident. The Jeff (Tain) Watts 4 was on hand to break in a Wednesday-night series, Minton’s Redux, presented by the club in collaboration with the Revive Music Group. (The same partnership has also produced a companion series, Harlem After Dark, with a different lineup in a later shift.)
Mr. Watts brought his usual no-nonsense authority to the table, working with Mr. Roberts and an excellent Cuban rhythm team consisting of the pianist Manuel Valera and the bassist Yunior Terry. Rhythmic modulation was a satisfying hallmark of the set, finding a home not only in the constitutionally tricky Thelonious Monk theme “Brilliant Corners” but also in Mr. Watts’s arrangement of a song by Björk, “107 Steps.” An original tune, “Of August Moon,” wafted by in a waltzlike 5/4 meter, only to break into a tumbling Afro-Cuban vamp, and a feverishly brawny drum solo.
Mr. Roberts, who originally hails from Perth, Australia, was an especially commanding soloist throughout the set, though there were stretches — notably on “Brilliant Corners” — when his tone and phrasing evoked Branford Marsalis. (It’s possible that Mr. Watts, a former member of Mr. Marsalis’s quartet, exercised selection bias in putting together his personnel.) Mr. Valera worked just as hard, projecting subtle poise as well as power, and locking with both Mr. Watts and Mr. Terry.
The set’s only ballad, “Revery,” was nearly drowned out by a din of conversation, carried across the narrow room from the bar. What fared better under those conditions was the closer, a straightforward take on Charlie Parker’s “Cool Blues” that morphed, during the coda, into a head-bobbing hip-hop groove. In no way was this an artistic stretch. But it fit.