“I’m a piano player, a rehearsal piano player, a jive-time conductor, bandleader, and sometimes I just do nothing but take bows … and I have fun. My, my, my. My thing is having fun” – Duke Ellington

Sweet sincerity and a neighbor-next door affectation, a genuine genuflection (to Ray Charles), the voice of Doc Watkins bursts to life from the very beginning, revealing the charming smile of his tone, the very one that you know from behind the keys at Bohanan’s or up on stage at the Empire Theatre. A thick gravy goodness of Count Basie or Thad Jones inspiration takes you as the horn section lays on it for the overflowing, and the ease with which you fall in into the sunshine of this tune is helpless, its’s just your body’s natural instinct. As he shouts “let me tell you bout a gal I know” you can picture this fine lady, honey Texan or otherwise hollerin’ their lovin’ at ya, as Watkins develops a James Taylor a la “Steamroller Blues” kinda honesty and congeniality. He’s taking you home and keeping you there, in that feeling, with your baby by your side, on Doc Watkins and His Orchestra’s first cut from “Live Sessions” titled “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.”

Brent “Doc” Watkins has been at the chopping board again, cutting and slicing and dicing like a brisket-master at his pit, and has delivered a main dish and a second helping as well in his latest rendezvous on the jazz reels. And not a digital reel, but the genteel and honest sound of the Tascam 388, an ’80s reel to reel machine, recorded the Doc Watkins Trio (and the Orchestra to boot), on two separate discs in Watkins’ living room (which ain’t normally filled with much more than his baby grand and few little jazz cats runnin’ round).

Home being the feeling that Watkins’ sound evokes, it makes sense he digs recording in a non-studio setting.

“I’ve always enjoyed rehearsals in my living room,” Watkins said. “Once we had the big band rehearsing and I thought it would make a great room for recording. Not only did they (the recordings) turn out great, but we had a great time making them. Everyone was relaxed and the fridge was well stocked with beer.”

Doc Watkin's living room. Photo by Hilmy Productions.
Doc Watkin’s living room. Photo by Hilmy Productions.

Watkins expounded upon his decision to embrace the analog method in his recording.

“We’re making music, not building a rocket ship,” Watkins said. “It occurred to me that most of my favorite recordings – Sinatra, Oscar Peterson, James Brown – were made live, in a single room, with the band all gathered around a minimal number of microphones.”

The feeling is what Watkins is going for, and the warmth he exudes as a person and alongside his band is the same sound he wants to capture.

“Those old recordings may not have been perfect in the technical sense, but they had such soul,” Watkins said. “Because the band is actually being recorded as they are, rather than being patched together over dozens of sessions.”

Breaking away from the tradition of the swingin’ jazz standards that made up the meat of the Trio’s last release “The Outlaw,” Watkins took a deeper look into the cut that’s been speaking to the cowboy in him, perhaps most poignantly capturing his photo on the cover of that album – Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.”

Featuring Doc Watkins on piano, vocals, and harp (blues that is), Brandon Guerra on drums and guitar, and Mike Porter on bass, “A Tribute To Willie Nelson” is perhaps only proper musical posturing by Watkins, for Nelson has dabbled in the jazz world, why not walk the line of country?

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Watkins’ fascination with the long-haired hippie music man started way back during his childhood.

“I’ve been a big fan of Willie since I was a kid. His voice mesmerizes me, and his songs are as good as anyone’s,” Watkins said. “I put him up there with Cole Porter, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, you name it!”

It’s fun to imagine Porter wearing Willie pigtails, Watkins a bandana, and Guerra strummin’ along in jazzman suit and tie while interpreting the good home cookin’ of Nelson’s charm (and others such as Carl Stutz and Ed Bruce have memorable emulations by Watkins), kickin’ up the dust of saloons and swingin’ the beat with a twang in the heat of a nickel and dime kinda town.

The album skeedaddles right out of the gate with “Shotgun Willie,” surprising listeners with the absence of piano, and the replacement of railroad shuffle harmonica and singing by Watkins himself, whose clapping accompaniment creates a feeling of intimacy and connection right from the get go. Watkins is certainly not known by his audience for decorating his prowess on the piano with vibrant vocals, (normally Pierre Poree does so alongside him), but on several songs on the Trio cut (and all of ‘em on the Big Band EP) he croons with a simple honesty that is reflective of the tunes he’s singing about (calling to mind a young Chet Baker or Mel Torme on some of the big band cuts). It’s clear from his harp playing as well that Watkins can execute whatever is necessary to make a sound complete. Versatility and vivacity engage seamlessly as the Trio plow down the road.

Doc Watkins and his band members recorded in his living room. Photo by Hilmy Productions.
Doc Watkins and his band members recorded in his living room. Photo by Hilmy Productions.

While the Nelson tunes “Crazy” and “On the Road Again” will undoubtedly tickle the sentimental taste buds of many, (sweet shuffle brush of Guerra and honky-tonk pluck of Porter give the road its wheels as Watkins’ decorates the Texas plains with tumbleweeds and yellow roses), the Fred Rose tune “Blues Eyes Crying In The Rain” holds the candle for me. Guerra plucks a humble guitar chord in unison with Porter as Watkins caresses the keys as the evening sun would the horizon after a cool summer rain. Guerra breaks into a gentle finger-pickin’, slidin’ jaunt and you feel the final breaths of light slowly wisp away as the people look into the prairie land, wondering where their lovers have gone.

The scenery changes a bit after Watkins gets down with home country on “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” (the title tells you of its charm and the group executes effectively the woes of lovin’ and livin’ as a man of the rodeo), diggin’ into a cut that is also on the Big Band release – “Night Life.”

Decadent yet down-home dirty, an intro shout that calls to mind Cab Calloway and his vivacious illustriousness, the band saunters deliciously into the verse as Doc takes his ode to Willie on the big band side (you can also find it on the Willie Nelson Tribute). The blues ain’t never done hurt nobody, and they do the body good on this number too, the most streetlight-on-a-Friday-night emotional of the cut, wayward big daddies and lil’ ladies strollin’ about in red-eyed wonder.

“Listen to what the blues are sayin…” and Watkins or the wah-wahs of the trombone take an extended riff in that way that makes you swoon into the curvatures of the sound, and the brass call in bursts that show the highlights of the low-lives. And so Watkins sings the melody one more time “…the night life, ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.”

“Stay All Night” is a swingin’ dance number that excites the every part of the soul in the liveliest of the numbers, and “Pride and Joy” is a fine dedication to the Austin-based Stevie Ray Vaughan, but it’s the tribute to the Alamo City that has Watkins and company at their best (or at least in their element). It is a character distinctive of San Antonio musicians, a thoughtful and unabashed love for the city that has given them the opportunity to sing their song. “Love my brisket tacos, eat ‘em every day with a little pico on the side … then I’ll grab a Shiner, drink it all the way, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever tried.”

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Yes, while not the most sensual or swingin’ (still pretty swingin’ though), “Home in San Antone” isn’t supposed to be. It is a tune that is meant to do what Watkins does, connect with the people of San Antonio through jazz. You can picture him with the Trio, fraternizing with the folks in their Sunday best at the Esquire Tavern, building rapport with the big band enthusiasts at the Empire, just straight up being a good dude and providing an opportunity for so many great musicians to do the same.

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“The cats in my band are the best. I have so much fun playing with them,” Watkins said. “I don’t have to worry about redoing things, overdubs, because their playing is so phenomenal. Many of the tracks on these albums were done on the first take.”

You can celebrate the music that Watkins has created this coming Monday, August 17 from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Plaza Club on West Houston Street, number 100. It will be his official double-album release, and if you haven’t witnessed this goodness the moment is as ripe as any. Pending that you miss it (and that’s a big “pending”) you can find Doc alongside many talented musicians at Bohanan’s every Friday and Saturday night, Esquire Tavern Sunday afternoons and from time to time at various other hot spots in the Alamo City. Check out www.docwatkins.com for more information. 

*Featured/top image: Brent “Doc” Watkins plays the piano. Photo by Hilmy Productions. 

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Adam Tutor

Adam Tutor is a Trinity University graduate, a saxophonist who performs with local bands Soulzzafying, Odie & the Digs, and Volcan, and a freelance music contributor to the Rivard Report.