Winds of Jazz: Energies of a Cyclone and an Ebullient Breeze

Jeff "Tain" Watts
Jazz drumming is a proudly adaptive discipline, consistent in its aims but malleable in its form. Jeff (Tain) Watts and Lewis Nash have been two of its guiding forces over the last 25 years or so, each standing for a particular kind of excellence. By happenstance, they're both headlining in New York this week.

Their opening sets on Tuesday night, which I caught one after the other, created a handy opportunity for comparison, highlighting the clear distinctions—tactical, foundational, maybe ideological—between them.

Make no mistake: there are commonalities too, important ones. Mr. Watts and Mr. Nash each hit the New York scene in the 1980s, carrying a torch for the late-boomer jazz generation. (Mr. Watts celebrates his 50th birthday on Thursday; Mr. Nash turned 52 a few weeks ago.) Briskly conversant in multiple dialects of swing, they brought acute intelligence to their task, and effortless intuition about the internal dynamics of a band. They were quickly endorsed by their elders and sought after by their peers.

For his current engagement at the Jazz Standard, Mr. Watts has reunited with the bassist Robert Hurst, his old partner in the saxophonist Branford Marsalis's working bands of the 1990s. The best parts of his early set on Tuesday revolved around the advanced musical shorthand between bassist and drummer, which enabled a dazzling array of impulsive polyrhythmic adjustments. “Vodville," a tune that Mr. Watts has featured on the bandstand for years, muscled through tempos almost compulsively, managing to sound precise and startling with every new feint.

The saxophonist on hand was Steve Coleman, another headstrong improviser with a fondness for complexity. He and Mr. Watts have worked together only in glancing fashion, so this encounter held promise.

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