Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer at NPR — and a long-time jazz fan. He's produced features on musicians like Keith Jarrett, Milton Nascimento, Don Pullen, Joni Mitchell, Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin. In his first column for ABS, he found a certain band remarkably tight for being barely a month old. —Ed.
Laurence Labat/Jos L. Knaepen/Tamas Talaber/Paul Brown
Members of the Overtone Quartet. Clockwise from upper left: Dave Holland, Eric Harland, Chris Potter, Jason Moran.
Members of the Overtone Quartet. Clockwise from upper left: Dave Holland, Eric Harland, Chris Potter, Jason Moran. Laurence Labat/Jos L. Knaepen/Tamas Talaber/Paul Brown
There's a certain thrill in being an early adopter of a new band that's hitting its stride. You know, to have stood in line in the rain to hear U2 or R.E.M. in a dive bar or nightclub in the early '80s — and later, being able to say, "I remember when ..."
Jazz also has thrilling new bands which engender that "Man, I was there!" feeling right from their first gigs. Right now, there's an aura of excitement around the supergroup The Overtone Quartet. Bassist Dave Holland, pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland and saxophonist Chris Potter had an audience whooping and hollering on Saturday, Oct. 10 at the Kennedy Center before the first note of their second set was played. "Now that's what I call a welcome," Holland said to the exuberant crowd, which greeted the group early and often.
When they got underway, with Holland's "Step To It," it was as if a sudden musical wind had taken the room, each player swirling and building and making offerings to the gods. A slow, rising bass groove, a kicky backbeat, a sinuous sax line combined to create raucous, samba dance music. At the far end of the stage the piano was hanging back, not catching fire from the insistent, head-bobbing commotion.
I am myself an early adopter of the Overtone Quartet. As a unit, it's only existed on an intermittent tour for the last six weeks, but I happened to catch its very first set last month at the Blue Note in New York. Turns out that The New York Times' Nate Chinen witnessed it too.
They carried around lead sheets for the music then, and did again on this October night. But they weren't sight-reading as much as their first gig. The charts seemed more like reminders of the set list, with more eye contact between musicians and less glaring at music stands. Tunes themselves came from all the different band members, making for a veritable composers' showcase.
The compositions were actually strong pieces. They weren't rote chord changes from which to hang solos, but complex, even asymmetrical works: Moran's "Gummy Moon," for instance, or Potter's anthemic closer "Ask Me Why." (The crowd went giddy for Potter's muscular, bluesy tenor lines on his song — especially on its chorus.) And the deeper the band roamed into its bag of tunes, the more colors they all let fly, some subtle and somber, others bright as a kids' playroom. Moran switched from grand piano to electric piano; he created a palette that ranged from meditative and popsicle-cool to haunting but rousing.
But brothers and sisters, I must report that the show was stolen by the virtuoso beats, clicks, biff-bams and pops of Eric Harland. His kickdrum pedal banged away at a cowbell throughout the entire night. He made it work, like a spice that adds just the right flavor. Clonk, clonk, clonk went that cowbell, and Harland made superhuman magic from that simplicity, building his solos while keeping all manner of paradiddles and samba beats, and braving at least 4/4, 6/8 and maybe a third time signature all at once.
Whether playing a gorgeous ballad or a down-home shuffle beat, the musicians charmed like a group with many years under their belt. Call them old souls or fellow travelers. But for me, the real surprise remains the unit's tight fit, their integration in such a brief amount of time.
Of course, three of the players (minus Moran) played together in a similar quartet called the Monterey Quartet, a group I also got to hear at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2008. I was there as a spectator, but NPR Music recorded them too: Newport Jazz 2008: The Monterey Quartet.
Back then, the pianist was Cuban-born keyboard sensation Gonzalo Rubalcaba. He played an incredible set, but a very different affair from the discreet, church-y, groovy and avant-garde musings of Moran. Rubalcaba's playing suggested classical filigree and folkloric song forms; they were dense and passionate, and from another time. Moran's restraint made his solos sparkle: his solos delivered through glancing flurries of fire and pelting sleet.
I share all this intel because it's a band you'll likely hear more about. Right now, the Overtone Quartet is abuzz largely via word of mouth, but rest assured: their legend is in the making. I'm sure you may have our own memories of hot new bands tearing it up, either recently or from long ago. I can't wait to hear your comments about Overtone, or any such group, in this space.