November 18, 1996 12:00 PM

Ernie Watts

The celebrated young lions of jazz may have daunting power and speed, but few of them have what tenor saxophonist Watts has honed to perfection over more than 20 years as a sideman (for Cannonball Adderley, Quincy Jones, Pat Metheny, Aretha Franklin, Rickie Lee Jones and even the Rolling Stones) and as a band leader: phrasing as natural as falling water and a sound that is at once steeped in tradition and wholly unique. Watts, 51, doesn’t make your jaw drop. He finds unusual routes between chords, yet his navigation never feels forced or extreme. His tone is deft and light, yet it glints. By eschewing a drummer on this set of bluesy jazz classics (“Lover Man,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) and original compositions, Watts further aerates the flow. Pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Reggie Workman, guitarist Mark Whitfield and singer Carmen Lundy (on two cuts) enrich the refractions beneath the album’s silvery surface. (JVC)

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