Trevor Watts / Trevor Watts & the Celebration Band

Live in Macedonia

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Trevor Watts' Celebration Band is typically exuberant and indeed relentlessly spirited during this live set recorded in Skopje, Macedonia in 2004. The octet is an unstoppable force, locking into a groove and rarely if ever letting go, the four-sax lineup of Watts (alto and soprano), Amy Leake (tenor), Rob Leake (tenor and soprano), and Marcus Cummins (alto and soprano) piling on multitudinous riffs and variations over the churning rhythm section of bassist Roger Carey, drummer Giampaolo Scattoza, and percussionist Jamie Harris while guitarist Geoff Sapsford finds just the right spots to throw in his funked-up chords. The opening eight-and-a-half-minute "The Idea" is on fire from start to finish, the saxes riffing in unison before breaking into harmony and counterpoint as an already fearsome groove pushes even harder. Watts solos forcefully on alto before returning to the ensemble as the rhythm section pumps up the funk factor, the saxes get even punchier, and the whole band slams to a photo finish. The ten-plus-minute "Summer Suns" begins comparatively lilting and warm in its African-inspired rhythms and harmonies -- brightened by soprano sax in the ensemble mix -- before Carey lets his fingers fly around the fretboard backed only by percussion and guitar and the saxes jump back in with clipped bursts; the tune ends at a considerably higher energy level than its comparatively mellow beginning, with a transition smooth enough that you might not remember how you got there.

Like "The Idea," "The High Life" riffs its way into a nine-minute ecstatic swirl, the sax-fueled intricacies spiraling around and around over the circular rhythms, only stepping back slightly to give room for Amy Leake's solo spot on tenor. "Spring Sunrise" is particularly ebullient in its high-flying harmonies and jubilant rhythms (with an endlessly rolling drum solo from Scatozza); this aptly named track is the only number also appearing on the Celebration Band's eponymous studio album from 2001. The live track is somewhat more energized but -- like Live in Macedonia overall -- a less immersive experience than the studio original. To be appreciated at their fullest, Watts' complex charts are best heard with wide stereo separation and a detailed mix, something that 2001's Trevor Watts & the Celebration Band delivered from start to finish, in contrast to this set recorded from Macedonian radio. Still, the recording possesses a raw and unvarnished energy, nicely capturing the Celebration Band's contagious spirit and particular arrangements and configurations, as in the concluding 11/8 modal "Life and Music," an extended soprano showcase for Watts that moves somewhat away from African-flavored counterpoint toward unison jazz riffing in the sax ensembles behind him. But the good feelings are best exemplified by "The Friendship Ship," another swaying, grooving number with Roma, Macedonian, and Albanian musicians invited on-stage to participate, including Macedonian guitarist Toni Kitanovski, who rocks out jam-band style. Watts and his bandmates brought a massive dose of cross-cultural positivity to Skopje, something the world could use in more ample supply these days.

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