learned from both Maynard Ferguson and Miles Davis, it was that jazz can—and should—go anywhere it wants, stylistically. On his infectious new album, One for Miles, One for Maynard—his second as a leader and first since 2004—Watkins and his band offer deep bop grooves, soulful vigor, and sparkling interplay. The CD will be released by Corona Music on August 26.
Produced by the trombonist and recorded in the historic Heid Studio in Pittsburgh, where Watkins has been based since the mid-’90s, the recording features a cast of terrific and versatile players from the area including the rhythm section of pianist Howard Alexander III of the Afro American Music Institute, double bassist Jeff Grubbs of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and drummer David Throckmorton, a “monster” player, says Watkins, whose father Bob drummed with singer Buddy Greco, among others.
Those names, plus those of trumpeter Ian Gordon, lead trumpeter Steve Hawk, and saxophonist Rick Matt, may not be familiar to people in other cities. But they’re all highly regarded players—as is Brooklyn wild card Matt Parker, who, like Watkins, Throckmorton, and Matt, is an alumnus of Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau.
“Maynard had a wave of Pittsburgh musicians in his band,” says Watkins. “He’d come through town and, based on recommendations, snap people up. That band worked nine months out of the year and played a million gigs. I got so much out of it.”
The “one” for Miles, “Shhh,” from In a Silent Way, is played in “a relaxed, thoughtful mode,” while Ferguson’s “Chala Nata,” from his 1970 M.F. Horn album, is updated with scratch effects, samples, and funky groove. Three originals by the leader, two from saxophonist Parker, and one by McCoy Tyner (“Contemplation”) round out the program.
Reggie Watkins was born on August 24, 1971 in Wheeling, West Virginia. He played trumpet and tuba in high school before switching to valve trombone, then eventually slide trombone. It was as a music major at West Virginia University that he was first exposed to the playing of ’bone legend J.J. Johnson.
“From the first moment I heard him solo, my life was changed,” he said. “J.J.’s melodic concept, the clarity of his tone, just the image of him playing got to me. As dazzled as I was by his speed, it was those other things that mattered the most.”
In Pittsburgh, Watkins was influenced by Roger Humphries, the local legend known for playing with Horace Silver on such classic albums as Song for My Father. Watkins became involved in various bands and gained a reputation for his strong, groove-minded playing.
In 1999, Watkins became Maynard Ferguson’s trombonist, music director, and arranger. He is featured as a trombonist and arranger on Swingin’ for Schuur, the 2001 album the trumpeter made with singer Diane Schuur.
In 2003, Watkins performed at the 16th annual Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Competition—the only one dedicated to the trombone. He didn’t win—that honor went to Andre Heyward of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. But he was thrilled to have been chosen as one of 11 semi-finalists by trombone greats Conrad Herwig and Eddie Bert and to perform with the all-star rhythm section of Eric Reed, Robert Hurst, and Carl Allen. “I also got to perform in front of my idols,” he said. “It was an amazing experience.”
The next year, Watkins recorded his first album, A-List, which was part of the Maynard Ferguson Presents series. The recording featured his compositions and arrangements.
Watkins played with pop artist Jason Mraz (“I’m Yours”) from 2008 to 2013 as part of The Grooveline Horns, an Austin, Texas–based pop and funk horn section that prides itself on being able to play anything from Engelbert Humperdinck to the Beastie Boys. He values his experience with Mraz as much as any in his career.
“I’m into all parts of music, everything,” says Watkins, who lived in Austin during most of his association with Mraz. “There’s nothing I’m adamantly against. It was refreshing to gain perspective, going back and forth from jazz bands to Jason. I found out that I really loved section work. And Grooveline is a great section to work in.”
Watkins is planning two shows to mark the release of One for Miles, One for Maynard. He’ll be performing with his quartet (including Howard Alexander III, piano; Tony DePaolis, drums; and David Throckmorton, drums) at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City, 9/25, and James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy, Pittsburgh, 9/27.
“It was important for me on this record to represent honestly not just my influences but also my own voice and where I’ve been,” says Watkins.