Charlie Watts is the best rock 'n' roll drummer to ever come out of England because he swings as hard as he rocks. That's because he first learned to play from jazz records, and last year he finally put together his dream band, a jazz big band. Actually, it was a humongous band: 32 of the best jazz players in Britain, including seven tenor saxophonists, seven trumpeters and two father-son pairs -- and not one guitarist or singer. The Charlie Watts Orchestra crowded the stage of the Bayou last night -- its music stands touching at the edges -- and spilled out onto the floor, where the pianist and two vibists played amid the enthusiastic crowd.
Watts was just one of the three trap drummers who laid down the solid groove behind the 24 horns, but his familiar brand of rocking swing made the evening much more than a rock star's indulgence or swing nostalgia; it reminded everyone in the room just how hard a big band can swing. Tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins acted as conductor and he led the band through disciplined arrangements of his own "C.U.C.B." (a tribute to Clifford Brown) and such standards as "Jumping With Symphony Sid." Tenor saxophonist Don Weller turned the latter tune inside out with his inventive modal solo; baritone saxophonist Roy Sidwell added a gorgeous solo to the nicely understated "Stardust."
The first set concluded with a rollicking version of Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home," whose ever-building momentum had the crowd on its feet and dancing. Watts sat in the middle of it all, knocking out the dotted-note beats.
With a smile as big as his band creasing his face, he was clearly in seventh heaven. He wasn't the only one.