Internationally acclaimed jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's targeted poaching of talent from the Pittsburgh area has had a profound impact on the young jazz scene around town. Much the way that earlier big-name players and high-profile local clubs circulated musical blood in and out of Pittsburgh, Ferguson has taken musicians such as drummer Dave Throckmorton and bassist Paul Thompson (of Beam and Thoth Trio, amongst others) and bassist Nathan Peck (of Pittsburgh's Peck jazz family), and given them immeasurable experience, which the musicians have faithfully brought back to the 'Burgh. The latest result of the Ferguson-Pittsburgh connection is A-List, the debut solo album by trombonist/composer/arranger Reggie Watkins. And while A-List speaks volumes about Watkins' own accomplishments as a musician and composer, it simultaneously acts as a rallying point for a young, vibrant set of jazz musicians around the city -- the top names and top players of a new generation who make up the first-choice list of the title.
First and foremost, of course, is Watkins himself, a remarkably pure trombonist whose strong tones range from laid-back harmonies ("December Twentieth") to bop sectionals ("Weight for Six") to funky, fusion-inspired soloing ("Three Girls on Two Chairs"), reggae rhythms ("Molero"), and Fred Wesley-ish percussive kinetic action. Watkins' trademark throughout A-List, though, is confidence: He plays with the cool ease and subtle machismo of a veteran, both of the tour spotlight of Ferguson's band and of the smoky eclecticism of the Quiet Storm Coffeehouse sessions by the Jive Family, from which some of A-List's musical chairs are drawn. Similarly, Watkins' own compositions, such as the subdued "Two Colors" and the slingshot "Weight For Six," stand up as full-fledged jazz-standard contenders without reeking of puffed-chest, gunslinger's bravado.
But A-List is really about collaboration, and if it comes across as a showoff in any way, it's in the size of that roster -- too many cooks (16 musicians contribute to the disc) come close to troubling Watkins' master plan. What saves it from falling apart under the weight of its own musical diversity, besides Watkins' own determination as a bandleader, is the quality of most players on that list. Throckmorton and Peck; keyboardist Howie Alexander; veteran trumpeter Ian Gordon plus Ken Robinson, Patrick Hession and Jamie Moore; guitarist Craig "Izzy" Arlet -- all contribute bop, big-band, and smooth jazz experience tempered with the experimentalism of vast musical backgrounds. So a track like "Star Jive," with a rhythm based on drum-and-bass, hard-and-fast syncopations, works alongside Thelonious Monk's swooning "Ask Me Now." Pittsburgh-to-Chicago transplant Gene Stovall contributes vocals to three tracks, including one of his own compositions, the funk-jazz jam "Sittin' Here in My Room," complete with Stovall's signature borderline psychosis lyrics and turntable-scratch scat.
As with his first solo disc, A-List marks an important moment for Reggie Watkins. But as a showcase for Pittsburgh's family of young musicians working in the ever more loosely defined field of "jazz," this album could hopefully someday be seen as a point when these musicians were still mostly lesser-knowns. If so, A-List will likely stand as a worthy marker.