Kobie Watkins Grouptet: Friday, Oct. 26, 7 p.m., $12–$65, The Fruit, Durham, www.durhamfruit.com
Kobie Watkins was riding in a car in Zimbabwe over a road laden with speed bumps and potholes that jostled him in his seat. The year was 2008, and he was on a musical tour of Africa that would take him through the eastern and southern part of the continent, from Kenya and Rwanda to South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries. Staring out the window and daydreaming, the bumps in the road began to syncopate a melody he was working out in his head.
“Ba! Ba-da-da-da. Ba! ba-da-da-da,” Watkins says, recalling the melody while clapping his hands, thrumming his fingers on the table, and enunciating the beats. “It’s all off-beats. It was really more of a swing then.”
Over the next ten years, Watkins held on to the melody. He sped it up; he slowed it down. He added a bridge, subtracted it, then added a bridge again. He sang hundreds of different iterations of this melody into his phone, recording them as voice memos, trying to get it just right. Sometime he’d sing it over the phone to one of his musical collaborators. He kept struggling to get the “funk” just right. And through this iterative process, the song became “MBDC,” the eighth track of Movement, his most recent album, which he released in May.
Movement is the first album of the Kobie Watkins Grouptet. Having already worked with a Kobie Watkins Quartet and a Kobie Watkins Group, the drummer needed a new name for this new ensemble of musicians. The Grouptet includes bassist Aaron Miller, pianist Justin Nielsen, guitarist Micah Stevens, trumpeter Ryan Nielsen, and saxophonist Jonathan Armstrong. Watkins met his bandmates in Idaho, where he still returns four times a year to teach master classes and perform with the grouptet at the ArtWest Performing and Visual Arts School.
The eleven-track Movement speaks to what Watkins loves best: jazz you can dance to. “Manteca” recalls the subtle, flirtatious twists and half-steps of dancers in jazz clubs. The nearly ten-minute long “In the Motion” is a slow but steady odyssey, one can imagine its danced plot moving in line with the drum. “Falling Upward” seems to demand joyful, erratic spins.
“There is movement in every track you hear,” Watkins exclaimed. “Every song should be able to be danced to!”
Since his last record, Watkins has become a father to two sons, who are now two and four years old. On one sunny afternoon when we met at Joe Van Gogh, he regaled me with the story of how one of his sons had knocked down the living room television and hurt himself, prompting an urgent care trip, all in the midst of family visiting from out of town. He said a day like this was not atypical for the family: craziness seemed to rule his days. But he loves being a dad.
He conspicuously leaves drumsticks laying around the house in the hopes that his sons will pick them up. He regularly dances with them to whatever record he’s got on. He only restricts music in one way in the house: the sons are not allowed to play the piano.
“Because it’s out of tune,” Watkins explains. “It will under-develop their ears for intonation! Once it’s tuned, they can.”
Because he spends much of his days with his sons, the only uninterrupted time Watkins regularly has to himself is in the early morning. He wakes up at four in the morning every day. During this time, he usually will practice drumming or go for a run. His go-to workout playlist is gospel music or a metronome—especially anything between 160 and 170 BPM, he says. Like so many musicians, church was where he got his start as a performer and honed his skills early on, and he says that gospel music still keeps him grounded.
“To be able to have [gospel] music in my cassette throughout my teen years helped remind me that I didn’t need to be anyone else,” Watkins said. “I have been going to [the gym] since back when it was not cool to work out. Even then, I have never listened to rap or hip-hop while working out. Only gospel. It keeps me joyful.”
Though Watkins has called Durham home for about seven years, he has his eye on moving abroad, maybe Japan or Australia. He believes strongly that jazz will play a role in his life wherever he ends up. After all, for Watkins, jazz is truly global music.
“It should be able to evolve,” Watkins said. “Jazz should have more spaces and places to go. People are not all the same, so why should the music stay the same? Allow the music to grow based on environment. It can’t just stay where it’s at.”
The same can be said for Watkins’ life philosophy: He doesn’t feel like he can just stay where he is. He wants to grow and change environments. For now though, Watkins is still based here in North Carolina, his ears perked up, searching for the beat around him.