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Saxophonist Bobby Watson burns it up at the Showcase

Howard Reich

10:35 AM EDT, October 4, 2013

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Bobby Watson came to play.

Though the Kansas City alto saxophonist sometimes has treated his first set at the Jazz Showcase as a kind of run-through with Chicago musicians, this time Watson hit hard from the outset – and rarely let up.

That's what one hopes to hear of a soloist of his stature and experience, and on Thursday night Watson came through.

You could hear it from the opening notes of "Cedar's Blues," played as homage to pianist Cedar Walton, who died in August at age 79. Watson brought a piercing tone and lamenting blues spirit to the piece, building fervor with every phrase. This was loose, freewheeling, rambunctious improvisation, but its power wasn't Watson's work alone.

Pianist Willie Pickens – who keeps proving that he's on a creative upswing in his 80s – played deep into the keys, often suggesting the work of two pairs of hands instead of merely one. Bassist Marlene Rosenberg and drummer Greg Artry were right with him, this high-energy rhythm section locking in with Watson much sooner in the set than one might have predicted.

And they were off. Next came John Coltrane's "Lazy Bird," in Watson's hands a vehicle for classic bebop frenzy. But there was more than speed at work here: The conviction and ardor of Watson's work proved compelling, especially when backed by Pickens' fast-flying lines on piano and Rosenberg's immense sound on bass.

Watson turned down the dial on his "Always a Friend," allowing its simple, soaring melody speak for itself, at a medium-slow tempo. His dusky tone suited the theme, but this moment of repose simply set stage for more action to come.

At first, one might have thought that the saxophonist was going to keep things nice and easy in the standard "I Remember You," Watson sliding up to pitches and enjoying a medium-swing tempo. It didn't take long, though, before Watson kicked into overdrive, producing a profusion of notes, barely catching a breath between phrases. Pickens matched him and then some, his whirring right-hand lines quite something to behold.

At this point, it almost seemed as if Watson had no higher intensity level to reach. He surely surprised many by pushing still harder in Sonny Rollins' "Pent-Up House," which Watson took at a ferocious tempo. The near-hysteria of his playing here brought this set to a peak, even if a free-for-all middle section broke the momentum a bit. Drummer Artry combined sonic power with technical control in his big solo, but also in his accompanying work throughout the evening.

These players were pulling in the same direction, as Watson apparently tried to shake up his audience. He did.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Bobby Watson Quartet

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

Admission: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com