The concerts for Duke Performances programmed by director Aaron Greenwald are one of the ornaments of a university which, sadly, has little other commitment to the visual and performing arts, and they provide one of the only opportunities in Durham to hear jazz (although the estimable Beyu Café on Main Street in downtown continues to increase its jazz programming, they do not and likely will never have the capability to present nationally known artists). A large and diverse audience at Page Auditorium (with many listeners from outside the Duke community) welcomed the quartet led by Jeff "Tain" Watts for a two-hour program of originals by Watts, with no intermission. Watts became known for his work with Wynton and Branford Marsalis in the early 1980s – music that was backward-looking in comparison with the experimental work of the late sixties and seventies. Thirty years later this cohort of musicians is now in its fifties, an age at which many musicians of earlier generations had already gone to their graves with their life's work completed. That is to say, it's not unreasonable to compare the work of Watts and his sidemen (Nicholas Payton, trumpet, Christian McBride, bass, Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone) with the best and most challenging work of the past.
The program offered seven compositions by Watts. The concert opened with "Gold Days," written to mark Watts' fiftieth birthday; an up-tempo number with an ornette-ish head and no changes, featuring solos by Payton and Coltrane. Payton was the most sharply-dressed figure on stage, with a black suit and black fedora, and a grim, serious look. Was he having fun? Seemingly not. Now and then his solos would move toward the stratosphere (eliciting shrieks from the listeners) but most of the time Payton stuck to the very lowest part of the trumpet's range, with dark and ugly ruminations over a few notes. My neighbor in the Page balcony complained that she didn't like the time that Coltrane was keeping, but indeed that was what he was aiming for, with lines that started and ended in between the beats laid down by Watts and McBride. Watts is the sort of drummer that jazz pianists love to hate, producing a level of sound from his toms that threatened to drown out all but the highest notes of Payton's solos (note to the sound tech: the sound for the ensemble was messy, muddy, loud, but with no detail. Too much boom from the bass and not enough midrange and treble for the sax and trumpet).
Next up was a blues in honor of the late saxist Michael Brecker ("Brecky with Drecky"), followed by a tune, "Katrina James," marking the hurricane, and in a style reminiscent of the funk of the early seventies, with Payton and Coltrane trading fours over the irregular meter of the rhythm sections. Watts then announced a three-tune set – "Dancing for Chicken," "A Wreath for John T. Smith," and "Attainment. Chicken" (the name of a friend) began with a long, virtuoso and Mingus-esque solo for McBride leading into a fast down-homey tune with a backbeat, with the audience clapping along. "Wreath" (one of the only tunes that approached being pretty on the program) was an elegy for someone victim to violence in Boston, with lovely playing by Payton, and one of the few moments of stillness when Watts turned down the energy. "Attainment," as one might expect from the title, was a chance for Ravi Coltrane to channel the sound and spirit of his father, and sadly, was really the only point at which he really connected and caught fire.
The closing number was "Return of the Jitney Man," which swung more than most of the music on the program, and featured a long solo by Payton. The audience brought the band back for one medium-tempo encore with a "wrong-note" head. It's sad when this kind of playing is the level one can expect for a nationally-touring ensemble. All of these players have the musicianship to do great things; produce music that could move and elevate and would make a difference in peoples' lives. Sadly, that sort of focus and intensity is hard to find. Will Friday's listeners recall this moment decades from now?