DAVE DAVIES, host:

The powerhouse jazz drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts was an original member of the Wynton Marsalis quintet in the early 1980s and then followed saxophonist Branford Marsalis into his quartet. Watts still plays with Branford but also records as a leader. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says his latest is really good - sometimes.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Saxophonist Branford Marsalis working for drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, who usually works for him. Watts is a polyrhythmic dynamo and a terrific accompanist who really prods a soloist. His drums don't just keep time, they have their own strong voice. His socking snare drum and answering tom-toms add a distinct layer to the orchestration. When he threatens to upstage his players, it does keep them motivated.

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WHITEHEAD: Jeff Watts is among jazz's most combustible drummers. But he's less assured as a band leader. His new album, simply called "Watts," is uneven but features a hot quartet, with Terence Blanchard on trumpet and Christian McBride on bass. Hornmen Blanchard and Branford Marsalis go back to high school days in New Orleans. Improvising together, they know how to dovetail.

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WHITEHEAD: "Katrina James" from Jeff Watt's album "Watts." The drummer modeled its pianoless quartet and dose of political commentary on the 1960 classic "Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus." But the new album falls short of that mark. As the civil rights movement heated up, Mingus roasted an obstructionist Arkansas governor with the satirical song "Fables of Faubus." Watts speaks truth to last year's power, taking pot shots on an unpopular president on a CD released after he's left office with a sophomoric comedy routine you might find amusing maybe once.

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Unidentified man #1: How can I help you?

Unidentified man #2: Well, you see Mr. W's term is coming to a close, and we were wondering if you might be able to assist us in securing his legacy.

WHITEHEAD: Mingus in the studio playfully addressed an imaginary nightclub audience. Watts give us a number with self-conscious studio chatter and loose moments that sound like rehearsal jams, not that eavesdropping on rehearsals can't be fun.

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WHITEHEAD: Christian McBride bowing his bass. For leaders of their own bands, like him and the horn players here, it can be a luxury not being in charge. They can just focus on playing. And when a great drummer sets him up, it can lead to the slam-bam blowing that's one of jazz's great pleasures. Terence Blanchard on trumpet.

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WHITEHEAD: Jeff Watt's album, "Watts," lags some - there's that comedy routine, a bland ballad with a guest pianist and a couple of long solo or mostly solo drum tracks. Those aren't bad but less fun than hearing Watts light a fire under someone else. That said, a good half of "Watts" is very good, so be grateful for the glass half full.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed "Watts," the new recording by drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.

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For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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