Interview with Ernie Watts by Ian Patterson
American saxophonist Ernie Watts has been there, done it and got the t-shirt. In a career that began in 1966 with a three-year stint in drummer Buddy Rich’s Orchestra, Watts has played in just about every setting imaginable; from Motown legend Marvin Gaye and rock icons Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones to jazz giants such as Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea and Kenny Burrell, Watts has lent his inimitable tenor sound to them all.
Film scores, television theme tunes, big-bands, orchestras and TV show-bands? Watts has done those too. But make no mistake; Watts is a jazz musician, and one of the finest exponents of the tenor saxophone of the past four decades.
Ernie Watts spoke to Dublin Jazz via Skype from his hotel in Germany, where he’s preparing for a European tour that will bring him to Dublin’s Sugar Club on the 8th of May for a highly anticipated, one-off Irish gig.
Watts has a strong connection with Germany, as the three musicians that make up his European quartet – pianist Christof Saenger, bassist Rudi Engel and drummer Heinrich Koebberling all hail from there. Germany is what you might call a jazz country: “The audiences are really good,” says Watts. “They’re very eclectic audiences and they’re open to listening to a lot of different things. The musicians are really good, they’re really well versed in the vocabulary of the music and they really study. They’re serious about their music.”
It would doubtless be financially more lucrative for Watts to use pick-up musicians wherever he plays but that’s not the Watts way: “The music is the most important thing,” affirms Watts. “I’m not interested in playing that much with pick-up bands. I’m more interested in playing my music with people that play together a lot because then you get a sound and the music itself takes on a special sound. You know, there’s a band sound. You can’t get a band sound and a band voice unless you play with the same people for a while. That’s very important.”
The quartet that Watts is bringing to Dublin has been touring and recording together since 1999 and boy does it have a sound – a powerful, swinging groove steeped in the blues: “It’s the fact that they’re really involved in the music,” explains Watts. “They’re really on it. We’re playing high energy music and their energy is really great. They’re all very, very clear players. The music is very clear. It sparkles.”
Watts knows a thing or two about great jazz quartets, having played in guitarist Pat Metheny’s Special Quartet in the late 1980s and, since 1987, in bassist and NEA Jazz Master Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. The magic of Watts’ European quartet, the saxophonist explains, is in the musical and personal empathy the members share: “It’s down to our communication and the fact that we all learned to play that way. We all listened to the same people growing up so we all have the same vocabulary.”
The vocabulary that Watts alludes to comes from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, from Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. Bebop, hardbop, modal jazz and the blues touches everything Watts does and his latest CD, A Simple Truth (Flying Dolphin Records, 2014) is no exception, though the orchestral opening and finale suggest a slightly more conceptual approach than on other Watts recordings.
For Watts, it’s all part of the same journey: “It’s just a continuum,” he says. “It’s a continuation of playing beautiful music and playing things we believe in and playing things that I feel offers people the opportunity to hear different alternatives for improvising jazz, and different ways of focusing and projecting the energy that is in this incredible music.”
The title reflects the focus that drives Watts’ music-making: “There’s basically one simple truth: it is done onto you as you believe – what you think manifests onto the physical plane,” Watts explains. “We are creating our reality all day every day by the thoughts that we think and by the things that we say and by our belief systems. It’s a very clear and simple path.”
Watts explains how the music on this CD came about: “Well, it started out as an orchestral piece – an electronic orchestral piece called “The Sound” and we progress through the album dealing with energy. We start with slower tempos and then the tempos build and peak in the middle of the album. Then it settles back down. The music is in a sort of arc. The end of the CD is called “The Sound Part II” and it goes out with the orchestra also.”
Watts – who began studying classical saxophone at the age of thirteen – has extensive experience working with orchestras and in recent times has performed with philharmonic orchestras in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, as well as the National Symphonic Orchestra of Costa Rica. The orchestral language is another idiom that Watts is perfectly conversant in: “I’ve done so many orchestral pieces with live orchestras, with synthesized orchestras and electronic orchestras – all kinds of orchestral music, so I wanted to do something utilizing those sounds but improvising through the music,” he explains.
If there was an album that inspired Watts on the CD’s two orchestral compositions it was saxophonist Stan Getz’ Focus (Verve, 1961), composed and arranged by Eddy Sauter: “It was really beautiful,” says Watts. “The parts had been written for the orchestra and then Stan played over the parts. I thought about that and wanted to do something in that area where the orchestral parts set up and I would improvise and fly over the top of it.”
Watts turned to his friend from L.A. Ron Feuer, a highly respected musician and orchestrator, who composed and arranged the orchestral music “I listened to it and then improvised over the first piece, which is called “Morning” and then I improvised over the second piece, which is called “Evening”, explains Watts. “We sort of co-composed it. The orchestra is all programs and samples but it sounds beautiful – like an acoustic orchestra.”
In between, there are Watts’ trademark originals and interpretations of Keith Jarrett’s “No Lonely Nights” and Billy Childs’ “Hope in The Face of Despair”: “They’re just beautiful pieces that I really wanted to play,” explains Watts.
Jarrett is another source of inspiration to Watts: “I listen to Keith a lot,” says Watts. “The thing with Keith is that everything he plays is a melody. I listen more to people that play other instruments than I listen to saxophone players. I listen to piano players a lot,” he adds. Watts also pays firey homage to bebop progenitor Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpeter’s tune “Bebop”.
Watts keeps coming back to those musical revolutionaries Gillespie and Charlie Parker, but for Watts there haven’t really been any seismic shifts in jazz during the time he’s been playing: “As far as the music goes I don’t know if it has evolved really that much,” he suggests. “There are styles. People play in the bebop fashion, the hardbop fashion – I don’t know if there’s a new style that has come up like it did with Dizzy and Bird, or the modal music of Miles and Coltrane. I think a lot of what people are doing now is continuing to interpret that kind of music in their own way.”
Watts, however, doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, nor does he harp on about the so-called Golden Age of Jazz: “I think all the musicians play their individual instruments exceptionally well. There are a lot of really great, great players today,” Watts states. His praise, however, comes with a caveat: “Over time I think jazz has got quite codified, and now rather than being a creative idiom it has become more of an interpretative idiom for some people. There are fewer people striving to come up with a different kind of vocabulary. That’s where we are in the evolution of music right now.”
There is, Watts admits, no easy or quick formula to innovation, mastery or success: “None of it is easy,” he says. “It’s never really been easy. When I was learning how to play it was hard then. And it was hard to make a living playing jazz or improvisational music.”
Most of Watts’ bands, whether with pianist David Witham, bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Bob Leatherbarrow in California, this European quartet, or his collaboration with Singaporean pianist Jeremy Monteiro in Asia are associations that have lasted decades; in this regard Watts seems to buck the modern trend whereby many musicians feel obliged to birth a new project every couple of years to satisfy the demands of clubs and festivals for novelty.
“It’s related to marketing and business in music, like business in everything else,” says Watts. “Everything is supposed to be new and improved. Everything is supposed to be the latest this or the latest that and everyone is in continual competition with each other. To me, music is not an athletic event. Music is an art form. So, it’s very, very important to me to create a band sound, and play music that I really believe in with people that I really love and really communicate with and so that’s why we do what we do.”
A major step in that direction came in 2004 when Watts and his wife Patricia set up Flying Dolphin Records to control all aspects of the musical production, from the type of material and the length of the songs to the frequency of recordings: “We don’t belong to anybody. We belong to us,” Watts affirms. “We do our music and the things that we believe in, the things that we feel right about. We’re not too concerned about what somebody else is doing or what somebody else thinks we should be doing. I have a very, very clear picture in my head and in my heart of what I need to do,” says Watts. “So, I follow my heart.”
Watts nearly always uses the plural pronoun; not the ‘we’ in the Royal sense, but inclusively of his wife Patricia: “We’re partners all the way,” he says. “There are a whole lot of things that wouldn’t be happening if it was not for Patricia. If it was not for Patricia there would not be a Flying Dolphin Records. If it was not for Patricia there wouldn’t be a lot of the touring we do because she works very hard to put these things together.
“You can’t imagine the amount of work it takes to organize a tour, to get transportation and hotels together for everybody and co-ordinate everything. Patricia is a very, very large part of that. We’re partners in Flying Dolphin Records. Patricia gets all the CDs pressed. She does all the artwork, all of the photography – everything.”
Forming the independent Flying Dolphin Records was a bold yet necessary move that was soon to pay dividends when Watts’ CD Analog Man (Flying Dolphin Records, 2007) won the Independent Music Award for Best Jazz album in 2008. Though Watts is exceptionally modest, one suspects that the Independent Music Award ranks as highly as the two Grammy awards he has scooped up during his distinguished career: “I think it was a very good thing to be recognized for our recording for independent jazz,” says Watts. “Flying Dolphin Records was something that we had built from the bottom up so it was nice to know that there was acceptance for what we were doing.”
More recently, on the 14th of March Watts was the recipient of the Frankfurt Music Prize. This prestigious award is presented annually at the international Musik Messe by the Trustees of the Frankfurt Music Prize Foundation and recognizes special achievements in the fields of interpretation, composition, musicology, teaching or services to music making. Past winners include Chick Corea, Sir George Solti, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and Alfred Brendel. The Frankfurt Music Prize effectively recognizes Watts’ lifetime dedication to the music he loves.
Watts in turn honors the music by looking to improve all the time. And if at 68 Watts sounds better than ever, there’s a simple reason for it – practise. It’s something he does almost every day.
“That’s what the music is about,” he says. “It’s about the combination of practicing and learning new things and then playing on the gig and letting the new things that you’ve learned evolve into your vocabulary. It’s always a combination of practise and performance. You can’t perform if you don’t practise, and if you do perform but you don’t practise then you play the same stuff over and over and over again.”
When Watts got his first break with Buddy Rich’s Orchestra in the 1960s, jazz was, even then, tremendously diverse. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Cab Calloway were all still going strong. You had the jazz-funk of Grant Green, the electric jazz-fusion and jazz rock of Miles Davis and Larry Coryell. Singers Ella Fitzgerlad, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan were still drawing the crowds. The free jazz movement in America and in Europe was gaining currency. Bossa-jazz and soul-jazz were popular. Pop music driven by the Beatles and others was entering the jazz idiom.
Watts, who has turned his hand to all kinds of musical settings, was right there in the mix: “I was playing fusion. I was playing cross-over music, whatever you want to call it. I was doing all of those things,” he says. “But with fusion, and what Miles was doing and The Mahavishnu Orchestra – with all of that music there was still a heavy emphasis on improvisation. They were just changing their musical environment.” Jazz it seems was no less messy or simple to define then as today.
Jazz was and is a global phenomenon, as indeed it has been for close to a century. Having played all over the world and extensively throughout America, Europe and Asia for close to fifty years, Watts is in a privileged position to talk about the current state of jazz: “Because of recorded material I think musicians all over the world have a better improvisational vocabulary. Everybody gets the opportunity to hear Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett or Fats Waller and all of the great players. You can go on YouTube and you can see all of these people,” says Watts with a hint of wonder in his voice. “It’s available to everybody worldwide.”
But is America still the stronghold of jazz? “I think there’s still a very strong jazz energy coming from the US,” Watts says, “but I think there’s a very strong energy for jazz in Europe too.” For Watts, Asia – despite the growth of jazz festivals across the vast continent in the last decade – is still maturing: “Asia’s young, so a lot of people are not aware of the tradition of the music. Their John Coltrane is Grover Washington. So there’s a whole lot of depth to the music and a whole of history that they haven’t been exposed to. I think they’re interested and I think they’re involved in the energy of the music,” says Watts. “It’s coming, because of people like Jeremy Monteiro and others who are really involved in improvisation and jazz. It’s a young audience and it takes time”
When Watts takes to the stage in Dublin’s Sugar Club on the 8th of May it will be with his trusty Keilworth tenor saxophone. It’s a handsome devil; black nickel plated with gold lacquered keys. Watts has used it these past twenty two years: “That’s the sound,” Watts states simply. “It’s become a very special thing because I play it so much. These instruments become like a spirit or a living thing. It’s like Willie Nelson and Trigger. He calls his guitar Trigger. It’s just this beat up old guitar with a hole in the front of it. That’s what he plays and that’s his sound. Everybody gets an individual sound on their instrument and sometimes the individual instrument is very, very special.”
Watts sound is unique, though it’s unmistakably the sound of jazz. What is jazz today? Watts take on it is simple enough: “I think what makes music jazz is improvisation,” Watts says. “There are different styles of music – there’s blues, there’s R&B, there’s reggae, World Music and all of these different forms. But jazz is improvisation. It’s what the musicians do with the material. It’s how they step out and where they take the material to. The spark of jazz, the soul of jazz is improvisation – when the musician jumps out there and goes for it. It’s the adventure of taking a chance. That’s what the spirit of jazz is.”