First published at www.13thfloor.co.nz
Neil Watson works as an Artist Teacher at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music’s Albany Campus in 2013. But after hours he likes to let off steam making serious New Orleans Boogaloo, 70’s Funk, Surf Rock and guitar-based jazz. Which is pretty much his template for this new 9 track album.
Born and raised in Auckland, Neil is one gun for hire you want in your studio. He’s recorded on over twenty released albums as a session artist for The Finn Brothers, Randy Crawford, Sola Rosa, Elemenop, Caitlin Smith, The Sami Sisters and Mel Parsons. Well-known in the local jazz scene he has also worked with jazz masters Michael Brecker, Diane Shuur, cut his teeth at 18 with the Roger Fox Big band and has jammed with jazz legend Mike Nock. He’s also supported entertainers such as Des O’Conner, John Rowles and Lucy Lawless and worked with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 2001 he released his debut album Unification from which the track The Guru was released on Kog Transmissions Dub Compilations 3. Along with his various solo projects and sideman duties Neil has taught and lectured music at both the New Zealand School of Music and the University of Auckland’s Jazz and Popular Music Programs since 2003. You can also catch him in a few high schools around teaching kids the passion.
On his third release, Watson gives us a grab bag of styles and highlights from a two-day session in July 2011. It was born of a project centred around his Masters and an exploration of what could be done playing open string notes. The title comes from Neil’s wife who described Hendrix’s sound as ‘tubular’ – which was very similar to what Neil is trying to emulate here.
In essence, we get a hybrid of past experiences wrapped up into 9 original tracks that showcase not only his talents but some of his wonderful friends too. Mixed by Jeremy Toy (She’s So Rad, Leonard Charles) and recorded by Edmund Cake (Bressa Creeting Cake) it has a very clean, slightly academic and pitch-perfect quality about it. And therein lies my problem. Having recently heard him play live on RNZ his sound was much dirtier and grungy. All the better for it. Here the production focuses on getting everything just so. Like hospital corners, accurate but a little too clinical.
One of the best tracks kicks in on the Coltrane styled banger Booga Gee, which is something of a free session jam based around the skimpiest of lines (as most good jazz tracks are) and fleshed out with juke-jumpin’ horns and big brassy moments, peppered with solos from Neil’s electric guitar and some deft baritone sax from the famous Roger Manins. Playing with the well-loved Auckland ensemble The Doughboys Neil has made some good mates in the jazz community and they help him out here. He’s also roped in drummer Ron Samsom (who appears on most of the Rattle Records’ Jazz albums) on drums and Oliver Right on upright bass plus Geoff Maddock (Golden Horse, BCC) to add some acoustic guitars to the nice and easy track Kerala.
By contrast, you get a couple of dirty 50’s boogie tracks to get you on the dance floor, like D.A.E. 101 which swings like a Shadows number, fronted by Stevie Ray Vaughan. It totally rocks. By far the best groove on this platter.
Elsewhere, Watson shows us his skills, as if it was his Curriculum Vitae: Jazz funk on the opener Metres Ahead (inspired by the 70’s funk group The Meters) and some competent but pedestrian blues power riffs on Wes De Money (a dedication to Wes Montgomery), which again sounds much better live and raw. There’s something to be said for a tad of distortion and a wonky amp.
As you’ve probably figure Mr Neil Watson is a very competent virtuoso. This album comes out next Friday – 11 February but I’d recommend that you catch him and his band in the flesh to truly get the full experience.