Sometimes you just step in it.
That’s what happened to soulful vocalist Bonnie Watts shortly after moving to Albuquerque from her native Chicago in January 2005.
“My son told me about the open mic night at Club Rhythm and Blues,” says Watts, who didn’t waste any time introducing herself to club owner John Nieto.
Just weeks after landing in New Mexico, Watts took hold of the mic at Club Rhythm and Blues, with Nieto standing right next to her. “I mean close,” she says, laughing, “and I thought, He’s gonna push me off the stage if I don’t sound good.”
“When Bonnie started singing ‘Summertime,’ ” says pianist Arnold Bodmer, “after about two or three words, me and [saxophonist] Cindy [Tag] looked at each other and were going—”
“—‘Oh, wow!’ ” Tag finishes.
The three started working together within days, and “it just hit,” says Watts. “Finally, I’m on the right boat. That’s what I was thinking.”
Watts, whom singer Hillary Smith describes as “a powerhouse,” has been singing ever since, holding down a regular Friday-night gig at Opa!, where her warm, dark, rich voice sauces the dinner hour.
“I thought, He’s gonna push me off the stage if I don’t sound good.”
This Thursday, Watts and City Reign—with Bodmer, Tag, bassist Michael Olivola and drummer Jim Magnarella—will bring their personal take on sophisticated jazz standards, good-time rock ’n’ roll, blues and soul to the Outpost, where the spotlight will deservedly focus on Watts, not the spanakopita.
“They say all traditional black people [started singing] in church,” Watts says wryly. “I sung in church, but I blew my C note out in my vocal chord. I was 14. So I couldn’t sing for about a year, nor talk.”
When she did return to singing, she trained classically at the Chicago Conservatory of Music so she wouldn’t do that again.
“I started doing background work with everyone, the black singers in Chicago,” she says. “That’s all I ever did was background work; and then I said, ‘I want to sing. ... I want to be a lead singer.’
“It took me a long time. Anywhere they would let me sing, I would go to open mics everywhere, and I would do leads,” she says.
That led to a stint with C.J. & Company; but about 15 years ago, she made the decision to sing strictly jazz and move away from the R&B and blues she had been singing. With help from the late guitarist Eddie Wade, Watts worked her way into the Chicago jazz scene, singing at clubs like Green Dolphin Street.
Watts’ work with Bodmer has bred a remarkable trust that allows them to take chances and surprise one another. In the context of what could be just another tired, cocktailed-out gig at Opa!, they get to the meat of the music and deliver fresh performances. “We know, even if we don’t sing or play it, we know that the next beat is going to be there,” says Bodmer.
They’ve put together a collection of tunes as thick as the phone book, but at the Outpost, they’ll be featuring the songs that “we stamped as ours,” says Watts. She mentions “It Was a Very Good Year” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” among others. They’re all tunes that have a personal connection for her, a connection that she can make you feel, misting your eyes with a ballad and sparking hallelujahs when she goes up-tempo.
“People turn me on,” Watts says. “It seems like I just have a good time, and I want everybody to join my party. We be partying out there.”