Bobby Watson Quartet
The Bobby Watson Quartet plays at The 222 in Healdsburg | Credit: Jim Orsetti

If saxophonist Bobby Watson needed an extra jolt of inspiration during his two-night stand in Healdsburg last weekend, all he had to do was look around the room.

The 222, a recently launched nonprofit venue in the Paul Mahder Gallery, presents some of the world’s greatest jazz musicians amid an array of consistently well-curated photography, sculpture, and canvases rendered via various media. A capacity audience on Sunday night, June 24, probably didn’t hurt either, as Watson delivered a gorgeous if lopsided set that concluded on an abrupt but rapturous note.

An alto saxophonist possessing a sumptuously rich, blues-inflected sound and a composer with a gift for bright, singing melodies, Watson has been a major creative force in jazz since he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1977. With the ascendance of jazz/rock fusion, it was a difficult time for the acoustic post-bop tradition that the Messengers embodied, and Watson played a key role in stabilizing and revitalizing a band that served as a singularly productive proving ground for rising players over more than three decades.

Bobby Watson and Essiet Essiet
Bobby Watson and Essiet Essiet at The 222 | Credit: Jim Orsetti

Something of a reunion, Watson’s band featured pianist Edward Simon, bassist Essiet Essiet, and drummer Akira Tana on a set focusing on the saxophonist’s originals. Simon was still a teenager when he started playing with Watson in the late 1980s, a relationship that helped propel the Venezuelan-born pianist to prominence. He and Essiet were part of Watson’s band Horizon, which recorded a series of stellar albums for Blue Note.

Watson opened with one of his best-known anthems, “Appointment in Milano,” a soaring tune that gave every indication the memorialized rendezvous was eagerly anticipated. Dedicated to his sister-in-law, Watson’s “Karita” furnished a spritely melody with a sassy bounce. But it was “Beatitudes,” another Watson original from the mid-80s, that captured everything about his sound and what makes him such a distinctive player. He’s listened deeply to Johnny Hodges, the altoist who was central to Duke Ellington’s orchestral palette, and has absorbed a fluid approach to phrasing that requires the ability to shape each note so that it expands or recedes with seamless velocity.

Watson opened his original “E.T.A.,” written while waiting for the birth of his daughter, as a duet with Tana, a veteran drummer who made full use of his textural command of the trap set. The ballad “Love Remains,” a tune Watson wrote with his wife, composer Pamela Baskin-Watson, offered another exquisite vehicle for the band, with Tana’s caressing brush work cushioning Essiet’s concluding bowing.

Bobby Watson
Bobby Watson at The 222 | Credit: Jim Orsetti

After several longer pieces, Watson hustled through the end of the show, playing through the melody of his tune “Quiet as It’s Kept” without any solos and rendering Ellington’s classic “In A Sentimental Mood” with all the requisite tenderness (ending with an extended quote of “What the World Needs Now Is Love”). He wrapped up with “In Case You Missed It,” an oft-played Watson tune that served as a calling card for the Jazz Messengers circa 1981.

Watson has been a scarce presence in the Bay Area for decades, but the shows at The 222 mark a West Coast reemergence following his transition to emeritus status after 20 years as the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s first William D. and Mary Grant/Missouri Distinguished Professor in Jazz Studies. He’s back in California Aug. 13 for San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest, performing with an all-star quartet featuring bassist Curtis Lundy, drummer Victor Jones, and pianist Cyrus Chestnut (largely the same group that’s featured on his upcoming album Back Home in Kansas City).

Watson’s Healdsburg gig is also something of a preview of coming attractions, as The 222’s second season kicks off Aug. 20–21 with a world-class array of Brazilian jazz. Guitarists Romero Lubambo and Chico Pinheiro play a duo show Saturday and are joined Sunday by vocalists Claudia Villela and Pamela Driggs.

The 222’s 2022–2023 season also includes an impressive array of chamber music, film, poetry, and author readings. Healdsburg Jazz Festival founder Jessica Felix, who passed the torch there to bassist/composer Marcus Shelby in 2020, is responsible for the venue’s jazz programming, which explains booking coups like the Sept. 10 solo recital by pianist Gerald Clayton and the chamber jazz combo Reverso on Oct. 29.