By Devon “Doc” Wendell
There’s nothing more sublimely lyrical as the sound of Bill Watrous playing his trombone. It’s ethereal with a lush, round and warm tone. It’s wonderfully familiar in the traditions of jazz yet romantically mysterious in its sheer soul and magic that happens in the moment. He is thee trombone master.Those magic moments took place at The Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles on Friday night, August 11th as Bill Watrous played two sets for a packed house of adoring fans. Watrous was joined by fellow trombonist Rob Stonebeck, Jennifer Leitham on bass, Randy Drake on drums and Andy Langham on keyboards. Both sets consisted of jazz standards such as “I’m Old Fashioned,” “It Could Happen To You” and “Blue Monk.” Watrous and Stonebeck would harmonize beautifully on the songs’ choruses or “heads.” On “Blue Monk,” Watrous scat sang a fantastically complex solo, dazzling the audience. Each band member got plenty of solo space during each composition throughout the evening.
The band’s often hard and aggressive approach served as a unique contrast to Watrous’ tender and melodic style. Randy Drake’s bebop-fueled drumming locked in with Jennifer Leitham’s virtuosic bass lines. Andy Langham’s imaginative and spontaneous keyboard work features big block chords in the styles of Duke Ellington, Ahmad Jammal and Red Garland. Rob Stonebeck’s style came off as brash and flashy at times but Stonebeck’s range and skill level are incredible. Watrous was at the center of it all, swinging in a way that’s rarely heard these days. Even on a Latin flavored uptempo reading of “America The Beautiful,” Watrous explored every melodic and harmonic possibility.
Of course Bill Watrous is considered one of the greatest balladeers in the history of jazz, making Hoagie Carmichael’s “Skylark” a true highlight of the evening’s program. Randy Drake’s brushwork was stellar as was Jennifer Leitham’s thematic bass solo. Bill Watrous sang through his trombone like no one else can do. His solo was absolutely haunting. When speaking of the true ballad masters of jazz, many hear the names Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis. Watrous has always been right up there with them. The vulnerability of his tone gets deep inside of your heart and stays there forever.
The second set opened with a version of John Klenner and Sam M. Lewis’ standard “Just Friends.” Keyboardist Andy Langham’s solo and comping were awe-inspiring. Langham’s knowledge of the history of jazz piano combined with a uniquely distinct style makes him one of the finest jazz piano stylists on the scene. Jennifer Leitham has earned her place on the jazz scene as one of the most masterful and bold players on Earth. Randy Drake’s drumming brings to mind such greats as Max Roach, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes without sounding derivative. The entire band was swinging harder than life.
Bill Watrous is also a brilliant vocalist and it was a delight to hear him sing Sammy Cahn’s original lyrics to “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” The band’s arrangement was closest to Chet Baker’s version of this classic ballad. Watrous and company demonstrated their versatility with a burning take on Jobim’s “Desafinado.” Watrous’s solo cooked and displayed so much of what jazz is missing today; melody, dynamics, a sense of theme, harmony, soul and most of all, swing. The show closed with Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues.” Stonebeck showed off his own eclectic trombone chops. Watrous and the entire band were in heaven, playing the music they love more than anything else. This was the perfect way to end the show. Duke would’ve been proud.
This was one of the finest and purest jazz shows I’ve seen in many years. Bill Watrous just gets better and better with age, cementing his place in America’s classical music known as jazz. And the band was perfect. The only down side was the loud mix on stage which was the fault of a sound man who is obviously more familiar with working on rock. This wasn’t enough to slow down Watrous and the band for one second. This was an evening of real jazz by the very best of the best.