Charlie Watts' The A, B, C & D of Boogie Woogie Jazz Band Makes U.S. Debut: Concert Review

Charlie Watts Drummer - H 2012
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Charlie Watts Drummer - H 2012

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts joyfully moonlights with his rollicking new boogie-woogie band.

A Rolling Stone gathers no moss, and has to do something to keep busy while plans for the band’s 50th anniversary celebration seem to take forever to take shape. So it’s no surprise that its celebrated drummer Charlie Watts would return to his first love – jazz -- in the interim. Having long anchored big band and small jazz combos, his latest side project is the A, B, C & D of Boogie Woogie, a rollicking jazz band formed in 2009 and only now making its American debut.

Performing the first of four nights at the intimate Iridium jazz club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the group raised the roof off the joint with their dynamic resuscitation of a joyful jazz style that has seemingly gone out of favor but which now seems more therapeutic than ever.

It’s safe to say that the band, whose name reflects the first initials of its members including Axel Zwingenberger (piano), Ben Waters (piano) and Dave Green (bass), wouldn’t be attracting all that much attention outside of serious jazz circles without the presence of its legendary drummer. But the throngs waiting to get into the sold-out club testified to his enduring star wattage.

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Their 75-minute set began with a stirring rendition of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” with guest pianist Bob Seeley (filling in for an absent Waters) demonstrating his mastery of stride technique, his rhythm-producing left hand gradually accelerating to dizzying speed. It was followed by such other standards of the genre as Meade Lux Lewis’ “Yancey Special” and “Honky Tonk Train Blues.”

“Hopefully, there’s no train wreck,” said Seeley, unnecessarily.

A mixture of familiar and original boogie-woogie numbers followed, many taken from the band’s debut CD Live in Paris, released last week. Such new numbers as “Street Market Drag” and the cheekily titled “More Sympathy for the Drummer” demonstrated that the band is as adept at composition as it is playing the classics.

Watts has long been known for his impassivity when playing for the Stones, but his sheer joy in his moonlighting was apparent from the wide grin plastering his face. Unlike the massive Stones gigs where’s he’s barely within shouting distance of his fellow musicians, here he was seated inches away from Green, and often kept his eyes firmly planted on the bassist’s flying fingers.

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His non-flashy rhythm playing was, as always, utterly flawless. Using his brushes as often as his sticks and gently tapping his cymbals, he only rarely indulged in brief solos. But when he did, they were not surprisingly electric.

Although Watts got the lion’s share of attention, his playing was easily matched by the virtuosic Zwingernberger and Green, with each afforded generous opportunity for solos.

The show also featured a historical element with the presence of guest singer Lila Ammons, who happens to be the granddaughter of one of the musical genre’s foremost pioneers, Albert Ammons. After lending her impressive vocals to such blues classics as “My Man Stands Out,” she implored the crowd with a shout of “Keep it alive, people!” But after the great performance by this terrific band, such persuading hardly seemed necessary.

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