If you've listened to any jazz at all in the past couple decades, you've probably heard drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. His discography is long and impressive, including appearances on many Grammy-winning and critically acclaimed recordings by various men named Marsalis. He's also led several of his own dates, including the new album Folk's Songs (Dark Key Music, 2007) with his band The Ebonix.
All About Jazz contributor Jason Crane talked with Watts about his roots, his musical relationships, and the burgeoning career of vocalist Juan Tainish.
All About Jazz: What is it about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that led you to compose a tune for him?
Jeff "Tain" Watts: As I learned more about his source material ... there's something that I wrote in the liner notes about the tune originally being about a filmmaker, but I couldn't get past a certain point. The sensibility that I was going for, I guess, it was originally for [filmmaker] Martin Scorsese. I was going for an old New York thing, but timeless at the same time.
I moved to New York in the early '80s, I guess 1982. It was a different New York than the one that we have now. After Rudolph Giuliani. When I decided to dedicate it to a filmmaker rather than a painter, Basquiat was my choice because that's the period when I could see some of his work in the city. His work is informed by a certain amount of abstract stuff and certain amount of classic structure. But of course with the graffiti that he would do, it reflected New York right at that time. His work has quotations that have to do with bebop and some historical things from jazz music, in addition to early hip hop. Those elements that were present in New York when I got there. He represents that for me.
AAJ: How is New York different now?
J"T"W: New York City now is markedly safer, much more tourist-friendly, and property values are soaring. It's all good, but it's easily a more boring place as a result. [laughs] Something about New York back thenit felt more like a large city in Europe. There was less dependence on the tourist trade. New York just assumed that it was the greatest city in the world, and it had a gritty feeling to it. Now it's a lot safer, it's definitely a lot safer. But it just feels different.
AAJ: Did you go to New York right from Pittsburgh, where you grew up?
J"T"W: No, I was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. That's where I met Branford [Marsalis], then I moved from there to New York to be in the first Wynton Marsalis quintet.
AAJ: I read that you have the distinction of being on all of those two Marsalis' Grammy-winning records.
J"T"W: In the big picture, a Grammy Award is what it is, and not necessarily reflective of high artistry or anything, as we know from watching the telecast each year. But it means something to some people, and it is a fact. But I'd tell that to people who know me reasonably well, and they'd question it. "You're the only one who's on all of them? What about Kenny Kirkland? No ... Marcus Roberts? I guess not."
AAJ: Talking about Branford, he and his inspiration appear on this record as well. One is on a sequel to a tune from his Braggtown (Marsalis Music, 2006) album. That tune was called "Blackzilla." On this record, we're treated to not just the "son of," but the "Seed of Blackzilla." Talk about Blackzilla and your longtime relationship with Branford.
J"T"W: The "Blackzilla" thing had its inspiration in the actual Godzilla films and the music from them. There were a couple scenes that I reworked and twisted to put into this tune. But I'll tell, I was sitting at home and Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla came on cable
AAJ: A classic.
J"T"W: Of course, one of the great, fine films. [laughs]
AAJ: I don't know why that didn't make your filmmakers' music series. Scorsese? C'mon, man.
J"T"W: I'm working up to it, I'm working up to it. [laughs] It's a vigorous scale. So I was watching it. I have a lot of instruments in my house, so I went to my upright bass and started creating a bass line and figuring out what I would do to the melody to put it into a jazzy piece. So that's the initial inspiration. It went from being some sort of "Godzilla variations" to something else. And then I was reminded of a piece on Chappelle's Show where [comedian Dave Chappelle] says, "I just back from Japan. I made a film of it. Check it out!" And it's him as a giant, black person monster terrorizing Japan or something like that. So I decided to make it Blackzilla for him, because he's really funny and insightful.
AAJ: How old were you when you first met Branford?
J"T"W: I was nineteen years old when I met Branford at Berklee. We came together in a class of musicians that people who follow jazz know about. Myself, Branford, [guitarist] Kevin Eubanks, [saxophonist] Donald Harrison, [drummer] Marvin "Smitty" Smith, [saxophonist] Walter Beasley, [drummer] Billy Kilson, the drummer Tommy Campbell, the bassist Victor Bailey from Weather Report and Madonna and all these people. There seemed to be a lot of musicians trying to find out some stuff at the same time.
I met him then. We played a little, but not a whole lot. Once in while, we'd do an R&B gig and once in a while, a little jam session. But we mostly functioned in different circles while in Boston, musically. But socially, we'd hang out and be at parties and talk about music. I remember him coming by my dormitory room with a tape of his high school jazz ensemble. It was him and a New Orleans rhythm section and Wynton on trumpet at about sixteen, and Donald Harrison was also involved. I had just transferred from a classical school with a very good brass program, so I had some awareness of people having flexibility and technique on brass instruments, on the trumpet. Wynton was already very amazing technically and very fiery. That's the first time I heard Wynton. I guess the rest is history.
AAJ: It seems like you and Branford, particularly in the era with [pianist] Kenny Kirkland and [bassist] Robert Hurst, developed an amazing musical conversation together. That quarter's early records were some of the first things I heard after all the 1950s and 1960s music I was introduced to. I remember thinking how cool it was that people were still making music like that. Was there something about your relationshipdid you know right away?
J"T"W: Branford's voice has really grown over the years, but he's always had a great ability to play with people and to fit inside [their music] really organically and aesthetically. He's a really cool bandleader, but I guess one of the things that gave him a certain amount of notoriety was the way he could fit into different situations. I think as a horn player, he's a great accompanist. We kind of grew up together on our instruments, as adults and men and musicians.
Those early recordsspeaking for myself, I know that there were and there are some things about the jazz tradition and vocabulary that I need for my playing, and I'm sure it was the same for him. But we were at least able to have a very personal conversation between us to build upon and augment. There's definitely something about Wynton's first group, and also the quartet that you spoke about. Everybody helped each other to have a real voice. Somehow, everything had an urgent vibe that sounded like some music that's happening right now that just happens to be jazzy. You could hear influences, but it already started to take on a personal sound.
AAJ: Talking about wonderful saxophone players, another one who gets a dedication on this record and who we lost last year is Dewey Redman. What was special about Dewey, and what caused you to pick the Keith Jarrett tune "Rotation" for him?
J"T"W: I have this convoluted history with Keith Jarrett's music. There was a period of time, maybe around 1986 or '87, where I'm still in Wynton Marsalis' quartet, and Branford and Kenny were working with Sting. Once in a while, they would have a break in their touring and we would get together and do some shows. We came to Seattle and played someplacethis is probably like the mid-'80sand Kenny was like, "I want you to check out Keith Jarrett." At the time, I was probably more into rhythm sections like John Coltrane's rhythm section with the classic quartet or Miles' rhythm section with Tony Williams.
Initially, Keith's music didn't really strike me. Kenny gave me an example of the Standards Trio with [drummer] Jack DeJohnette and [bassist] Gary Peacock. I would listen to it, but I wasn't really able to focus on Keith. I was accustomed to the interaction of Miles' group playing standards and other groups, so it didn't really strike me. And then Kenny just told me that if I didn't like Keith Jarrett, then I was stupid. [laughs] So I was like, "I guess I should check out Keith Jarrett."
That led me to his '70s quartet/quintet with Dewey Redman, [drummer] Paul Motian and [bassist] Charlie Haden, and [percussionist] Guilherme Franco at times. The music of that band was really personal. It seemed like it was all these things that were going on at the same timenot just in jazz, but in music. It was all in that music. Embracing a certain amount of pop and European sensibility. They would play tunes with vamps and grooves and tunes with changes. They would play things that were very ugly and dark, and then not be ashamed to play things that are very innocent and lyrical. Dewey was a big part of that. I got to play with him a few times.
Also, there's a boxed set called Mysteries: The Impulse! Years, 1975-1976] (Impulse!, 1996), I guess it's all the stuff that group did on the Impulse! label. In the booklet, Keith talks about how he would encourage people in that ensemble to play things that weren't their strengths. So he's say that maybe Charlie and Paul Motian didn't feel that they were good at vamps and grooves, but Keith would put those things in the music. What they would come up with wouldn't necessarily be confused with Motown or James Brown, [but] just the fact that they're uncomfortable and trying to find something to play gives the music a different character.
He also said that Dewey liked to play free and felt like he didn't know certain information on chord changes, but Keith commented that, "I think what he plays on changes is really beautiful and personal." And that's exactly what it is. [Dewey] is like a little bit of everything at the same time. He has the sound of someone from the '40s, a rich tenor sound. He represents the avant-garde, folk music, and a certain piece of that Texas thing that he shares with [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman. That language. The blues, the church. And he was really funny, too.
AAJ: For me, the emotional high point of this record is to hear the wonderful vocalist Juan Tainish back in the recording studio and reconnecting with his fans. That must have been a great moment for you, too.
J"T"W: There's just something about Juan. I understand he'll be taking some vocal lessons to really improve the quality of his performance. I know he's truly not the best singer, but there's something about him. It's like he knows what I'm thinking. And he knows, when I write a lyric, what I'm trying to get to with the text. I haven't found anybody else to do that. He was cool. He worked really cheap. Of course he was late, but I was happy to have him. [The joke: "Juan Tainish" is the vocalist alter ego of Watts himself.]
AAJ: I've gone all this time without ever even mentioning the other people who are on this record. Will you talk about the band?
J"T"W: [Saxophonist] Marcus Strickland has been a big part of my musical life for four or five years. I really like him because he's really open and able to have something to say. A lot of the tunes that I write have familiar elements, but they're put together in strange ways. Definitely not textbook ways. But no matter what I write, he always has something to say on it. He doesn't have to figure it out, "Let me learn this different type of form and then I'll be able to construct a solo upon it." He instantly has something to say.
It helps me as a composer. I feel that whenever you write new music and stuff that's not typical, you need musicians who are open. The tune is like a flame and you need musicians who breathe life into the song, who come to life as soon as possible so you feel like you truly wrote a song.
[Pianist] David Kikoskiwe went to Berklee College together. He could always play. He always sounds great. For the directions that I want to end up going in with this ensemble, he was a really good choice. A lot of people listen to different music, but I think there's a difference between listening to different music and actually addressing it with your instrument and being able to play examples of this and that, and really know about things.
David plays the instrument really well, and you can sit down and talk with him about [pianist Thelonious] Monk's music, [guitarist and composer] Frank Zappa's music. He can talk intimately about Stevie Wonder and he can sit down and play examples. Earlier this year, I went with him to a festival in Uruguay. We were riding to the venue with a couple Brazilian female singers. He got into a discussion with them about [guitarists] Toninho Horta or João Gilberto or somebody. And David stumped them on their own music. [laughs] He was citing lyrics. He's just like a scholar of music and he has great energy.
Christian McBride. It's bad to say "favorite," but he's trying to leave no stone unturned as far as his instrument, that's for sure. When he got to New York and was going to Juilliard at eighteen years old, he had a great sound and a lot of talent. He's doing his best to expand on that and play everything that's possible on the bass. In general, I haven't played with him enough, even though we're friends and have fun when we do play. That's one of the main things I wanted to stimulate with this situation. Just have fun and create a space where we could do some playing and challenge each other and see what we come up with.
Jeff "Tain" Watts, Folk's Songs (Dark Key Music, 2007)
Branford Marsalis, Braggtown (Marsalis Music, 2006)
Jeff "Tain" Watts, Detained (Half Note Music, 2004)
Branford Marsalis, A Love Supreme CD + DVD (Marsalis Music, 2004)
Jeff "Tain" Watts, Megawatts (Sunnyside, 2004)
Alice Coltrane, Translinear Light (Impulse!, 2004)
Jeff "Tain" Watts, Bar Talk (Sony, 2002)
Jeff "Tain" Watts, Citizen Tain (Sony, 1999)
Top Photo: Lester David Hinton
Bottom Photo: C. Andrew Hovan