Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was in the front row for the opening set. The great jazz drummer Roy Haynes was in the same chair for the second set, which brought a huge smile to Charlie Watts' face as the Stones drummer took the stage for his late show at New York's Iridium on Monday with the blues-and-swing machine The A, B, C & D of Boogie Woogie
The presence of both Richards and Haynes – who is 87, played with Charlie Parker and continues to lead his own bands – on the closing night of Watts' Iridium engagement perfectly summed up the exuberant duality of his musical life: a love and mastery of traditional jazz and blues rhythms, invigorated with the living-history dynamics the Stones detonate inside early rock & roll and R&B. Watts' boogie-woogie quartet – who just released a fine debut album, Live in Paris (Eagle), and made their U.S. debut at Lincoln Center last week before doing four nights at Iridium – amplify the delight in his devotion. When Watts, bassist Dave Green and the four-fisted piano team of Axel Zwingenberger and Ben Waters lit into the Roaring Twenties chestnut "The Sheik of Araby" near the end of that last Iridium set, the furious connected charge of the pianists' low-end hammering and high-note rolls, Green's racing pulse and Watts' hard straight drive was like getting the Stones' "Rip This Joint" without guitars or vocals but plenty of hyperspeed Fats Waller and Meade Lux Lewis.
Roots, Branches and Satisfaction
The A, B, C & D of Boogie Woogie – a pun on the band members' first names – formed in 2009 and recorded Live in Paris in September, 2010. But the group's roots go deep and far. A London native, Green has played skiffle, jazz and boogie with Watts since they were teenagers. Waters was inspired to play piano by the original sixth Stone, Ian Stewart, who died in 1985, and eventually took the latter's place on ivories, next to Watts, in the swing orchestra Rocket 88. Last year, Waters paid true-blues homage to Stewart, curating an all-star tribute album, Boogie 4 Stu (Eagle), that included a full Stones reunion with ex-bassist Bill Wyman. Zwingenberger, who is from Hamburg, Germany, recorded with Wyman's Rhythm Kings in the Eighties and played with blues elders Champion Jack Dupree and Sippie Wallace.
At Iridium, the quartet worked in combinations before coming together for an extended collective finish. Zwingenberger and Waters opened with double-piano fireworks minus the backfield, then alternated in trios with Watts and Green. Waters sang a slow blues, "Somebody Changed the Lock," from Dr. John's 1972 album, Gumbo. In one number, Zwingenberger shared the soloing space with Green and, in a rare step out front, Watts. The drummer, the ultimate team player in his day job, took four knockout choruses of fast-action tom rolls, snare gunshots and wake-up cymbal splashes, wrapping up the last volley with a boyish grin of satisfaction.
Shake, Rattle and Stones
Singer Lila Ammons, who performed several songs with the band, brought additional history as well as classy sass – she is the granddaughter of the legendary pianist Albert Ammons – while the night's most overt reference to the Stones was the gag title of the manic-trio charge "More Sympathy for the Drummer." But Watts' main gig was always in there somewhere, most dramatically in the extra tom bombs and snare grenades he fired at the end of high-speed numbers like Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle and Roll" – the same bonus flourishes he sneaks in at Stones shows after the last crashing chords of "Start Me Up" and "Brown Sugar."
Before he walked offstage, after the group bows, Watts stopped to give autographs to a few eager fans. He paused longer, on his way back to the dressing room, to give Haynes another smile and a warm respectful hug – the Stone not as star but still an excited and grateful disciple.