Bobby Watson's back and playing better than ever--news that's welcome but also a little surprising. Starting with his tenure in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the early 80s (which overlapped with Wynton Marsalis's), the alto saxist impressed just about everyone. Lively ideas bobbed along on a cheery tone and glossy technique, and he quickly revealed a knack for writing similarly sunny and often irresistible tunes, including the minor jazz classic "In Case You Missed It." Somewhere along the way, the wheels came off the Watson Express: during most of the 90s, his playing lacked sharpness, his ideas turned flaccid, and the only joy in hearing him involved recalling his past glories. But those who witnessed his performance in the Art Blakey reunion tribute at Symphony Center during last year's Jazz Fest heard a revitalized Watson steal the spotlight from better-known colleagues Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard; others can gauge his recent progress from 2002's Live & Learn (Palmetto) and 1999's more introspective Quiet as It's Kept (Red), where he demonstrates a renewed command of his craft and commitment to catchy and enduring compositions. Watson has returned to the ranks of those saxophonists--Antonio Hart, Steve Slagle, Italy's Rosario Giuliani, and Watson's fellow ex-Messenger Donald Harrison come to mind--recasting the alto's place in the jazz mainstream. He'll perform in Chicago with the perfect accompaniment: the trio led by pianist Willie Pickens, who'll complement Watson's buoyancy with darkly textured harmonies and solos as energetic as Watson's own. Friday and Saturday, February 20 and 21, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, February 22, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.