When he’s not playing drums with the Rolling Stones — which is most of the time these days — 71-year-old throat cancer survivor Charlie Watts likes to indulge his love of jazz and boogie woogie music.
Both predate rock ‘n’ roll, of course. Both are part of the wellspring that has fed rock music all these years. Think of the largely piano-driven boogie woogie as the blues-based cousin of jazz.
It’s an extreme niche music today, far removed from its heyday in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s hard to find, harder to do well.
The late pianist Ian Stewart, who started the Stones with Brian Jones (also dead) in 1962, was an ardent devotee of the music. As a baby band in the early ‘60s, the Stones took its signature piano lines and turned them into Keith Richards’ and Jones’ raw twin-guitar tapestry, quietly propelled by Bill Wyman’s loping bass lines, Watts’ beat-focused stick work and Stewart’s bluesy piano flavoring.
That was a long time ago. The Stones are globe-trotting multimillionaires now. The band’s a lucrative part-time job. When that aging machine isn’t running, Watts turns to other projects to get his ya-ya’s out.
He used to have his own jazz groups, even had a jazz orchestra once. But since the Stones’ last performed in 2007, he’s taken up residence with a quartet known as the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie. The group takes its no-frills name from the first names of its four players — German pianist Axel Zwingenberger, British pianist (and Stewart disciple) Ben Waters, Watts and acoustic bassist Dave Green.
They performed exclusively in Europe until Thursday, when the group played New York’s Lincoln Center, followed by a four-show run at New York’s Iridium nightclub — where former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor played a few weeks ago — that ended Monday.
The band released its first album, “Live in Paris,” released last week on Eagle Records, which distributes a lot of the Stones’ side projects and videos in the States. It is in keeping with Watts’ other sans Stones affairs — simple, low-key, low-budget, club-level and highly fun.
It is, in essence, both an invigorating update and lively run through the history of a style that has been marginalized but remains a pervasive influence on so much that is popular in music today.
All too often the problem with modern-day advocates of old root musics tend to be more reverential than innovative. They regurgitate it. They don’t add anything to it.
That’s not the case with the ABCD guys. They’re reverential all right, but, aside from Waters’ unimpressive vocals here and there, they also treat this music as a living, breathing organism, not a museum piece. Just listen to the way they swing on Leroy Carr’s “Low Down Dog Blues” and you’ll know what I mean.
They reclaim the piano as the central instrument of boogie woogie, but use a two-piano format in much the same way that Richards and Jones (and, later, Mick Taylor and Ron Wood) did within the Stones, weaving around each other like punching-and-jabbing boxers.
Zwingenberger is a smooth player with a light touch, using his nimble subtlety to great jazz-like effect on “Street Market Drag,” one of seven originals on the 11-track album. He works well in tandem with Waters, the rawer-sounding of the two, on instrumentals like opener “Bonsoir Boogie!,” which they wrote together, and another original, “Blues Des Lombards,” named for the Parisian club where this was recorded in 2010.
The combo has the improvisational instincts of a jazz band that’s fixated on the dance side of blues music. Their selection of covers ranges from blues to early rock 'n' roll to Dr. John's voodoo boogie.
Watts has never been one to hog the spotlight, but he’s the silent star here, not just because of his high-wattage affiliation. Taking his cues from the great jazz drummers of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, he knows his is a subordinate role. Besides, he’s busy throwing coal in the engine with Green, whose long, bouncing bass lines are reminiscent on Wyman’s.
Watts stands out in his own inimitable way, especially on what amounts to a showcase, for him, “More Sympathy for the Drummer.” It’s one of several tracks (including “Encore Stomp”) where the band summons its collective firepower and cuts loose, Watts using his snare drum and more cymbal splashes than usual to earn the tune’s inside-joke title.
There are plenty inspired covers here, too, including the W.C. Handy standard “St. Louis Blues” and “Down the Road a Piece,” a boogie-woogie classic from 1940 that the Stones recorded in the mid-’60s (it’s a good example of how they extrapolated the piano lines to guitar).
The Stones played their first gig as the Rollin’ Stones in London in July 1962. Wyman joined five months later. Watts signed on in January 1963. It’s still unclear just how they’re going to celebrate that as a band, though a 2013 tour is looking more and more likely.
“Live in Paris” strongly supports the belief that no matter how, if or when these senior citizens tour to commemorate that milestone, the ever-classy Charlie Watts will just keep playing the music he loves — with or without the rock ‘n’ roll circus.