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Julius Watkins Sextet, Vols. 1-2 (1954)

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Oscar Pettiford

Before the rise of bebop, the French horn was never heard as an improvising instrument in jazz. John Graas, who worked with Stan Kenton and Shorty Rogers, was the first jazz French horn player to lead his own record date, in 1953. However, Julius Watkins soon surpassed him as a major soloist and would be the top jazz French horn player to emerge until the 1990s. He appeared as a soloist on a Thelonious Monk date in 1953 next to Sonny Rollins, and in 1954-1955 recorded music for a pair of very rare Blue Note 10" LPs. All of the latter performances are on this CD reissue. The 42 minutes of music find Watkins heading sextets with either Frank Foster or Hank Mobley on tenor, guitarist Perry Lopez, George Butcher or Duke Jordan on piano, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and Kenny Clarke or Art Blakey on drums. The French horn/tenor front line is an attractive sound (substitute Watkins for a trombonist, and one has the Jazz Crusaders); when Watkins formed Les Jazz Modes (which lasted for five years) a few years later, he would use Charlie Rouse as his tenor. The French horn might be a difficult instrument, but Watkins played it with the warmth of a trombone and nearly the fluidity of a trumpet. All nine straight-ahead selections on his CD are group originals, with Duke Jordan's future standard "Jordu" being heard in one of its earliest versions. Overall, the music fits into the modern mainstream of the period. This early effort by Julius Watkins is easily recommended. ~ Scott Yanow