This summer, JazzArts Charlotte continued its valued service to the jazz community by presenting two more free virtual showcases featuring North Carolina jazz musicians.

The July 22nd show featured the Kobie Watkins Grouptet, led by drummer Kobie Watkins, and including Lovell Bradford, piano, Jackson Cini, tenor saxophone, William Ledbetter, bass, and Ariel Mejia, trumpet. From their opening notes to the end of the one hour show I was captivated and energized by the Grouptet’s performance. Watkins set up the groove of the first tune, “Catch This,” with an African rhythm that was immediately engaging. After Ledbetter and Bradford joined in, the horns entered with a crisp percussive intro that led into an innovative melody followed by solos from the players.

Not only is Watkins a master drummer, but he is also an excellent composer. Five of the six tunes performed were his originals – listening to his playing and compositions throughout the show kept me totally engrossed and energized. If Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers still existed, I could easily see them doing a program of Watkins’ music. Or better yet, maybe someone should approach Watkins about reinstating the Messengers and making Watkins the leader in Art Blakey’s place!

The other tunes in the set were “Inner Motion,” “The City,” “Expressions,” “Third Pew” by Watkins’ friend, Harold Mims, and one last untitled piece.

Another one of the bright spots of the show was Bradford’s playing: he drove the rhythm section on piano as fiercely as Watkins did on drums. The two of them must be kindred spirits, because their constant focus on each other powered the music to higher levels.Ledbetter held down the bottom of the rhythm section with his excellent bass playing, but I wish he had been turned up more in the overall group sound. Cini and Mejia are also fine players but that being said, I think playing a saxophone or trumpet in this show would have been very challenging. Not only were the tunes and chord progressions tricky, but also having a solo over the rhythm section’s intense energy would require very muscular playing. So, if I had one request, it would be to give these musicians a tune in which they are featured, such as a ballad.

I encourage you to pick up a CD by the Grouptet so you can hear more of their fine work.

JazzArts’ August 26th show featured the Dave Vertago Quartet. Dave Vertago is a solid bassist with a big sound. He was amplified perfectly for this show, which is fitting since it was a tribute to great jazz bassists. The four tunes that Vertago dedicated to great jazz bassists were the highlight of the show for me: “Bass Face,” a tribute to Ray Brown by Kenny Burrell, “Captain Bill” by Ray Brown, “Laverne” by Oscar Pettiford and “Waltz for Ruth” by Charlie Haydn. These selections included particularly nice interludes and endings. When introducing “Waltz for Ruth” Vertago mentioned one of North Carolina’s finest bassists, Charlotte’s Ron Brendle, who had introduced him to this tune.

Vertago’s group included guitarist Troy Conn, pianist Lovell Bradford, and drummer Al Servel IV. During his announcements Vertago let us know that Bradford and Servel IV were filling in for regular members of the Quartet. Conn and Vertago have played together for many years and Conn was even the best man at Vertago’s wedding. So, you could tell the closeness of these two musicians.

This was most evident in one of their best performances of the evening – Conn’s “My Song, Your Story.” Conn’s electric guitar soloing and comping was at its best here. Servel IV, who provided a very steady groove and perfect balance throughout the show, laid down a very steady and slow rock groove that inspired Conn and Vertago to play fine solos.

Bradford, who was outstanding in the Kobie Watkins Grouptet, was in different surroundings with Vertago’s group, but he displayed his versatility. He played especially well on the Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad, “I Have Dreamed,” an arrangement that Vertago borrowed from another great bassist, Christian McBride. Lastly, Bradford was dead on with the funky, jazz-soul groove on one of the last tunes of the show, Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.”

I hope you will check out both groups. Here are free links to the shows:

The Kobie Watkins Grouptet

The Dave Vertago Quartet

The sponsors of JazzArts are the Knight Foundation, O’s Place Jazz, Infusion Fund, NC Arts Council, Doris Duke Foundation and many donors who keep jazz thriving.