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Interviews

Jeff "Tain" Watts: Moods and Melodies of a Drummer

By Published: March 13, 2004

Ultimately it's about expression. Musicians have to satisfy themselves and I'm definitely not the one to try to tell them how to solo or what the backdrops for the improvisation should be.

Jeff "Tain" Watts is a workingman's drummer. Look around and you find him everywhere. Gigging with Branford Marsalis. Yeah, he did the Wynton thing for a bunch of years. The ill-fated "Tonight Show" band when Jay Leno first took over for Johnny Carson. Look at your CDs. You'll find him. With Michael Brecker, Ravi Coltrane, Kenny Garrett and a whole lot more. He can establish a groove for anyone, as well as flat out cook.

His command of his instrument—which he is always trying to improve—is vast. It seems odd that he didn't have an immediate interest in music growing up in Pittsburgh. Elvin Jones says he knew at age 2 that he would be a drummer. Watts didn't care much about music and didn't listen too much. His parents didn't collect music.

But once exposed to it in school, he quickly acclimated to it. And as he proceeded up the ladder, he got into all kinds of music, so he'd be prepared for any job that might come up. That's dexterity. It's also smart. If there's a lot of starving musicians out there, Watts wasn't going to be one of them.

"As I started to play more drum set, I adjusted my thing. I wanted to be able to perform authentically and accurately on the classical percussion, but also plays different styles on the drum set," he says. He ended up in at Berkley School of Music and hung out with some jazz heavyweights that got him started along his strong career.

And now he's trying to develop his own music and his own group... while not giving up sideman gigs that allow him a lot of free reign. "It's very cool. I've had a great time. If I choose to, I can just play with people that I love to play with and also my good friends, which comes in handy when you're traveling. I'm very fortunate"

In the wake of Citizen Tain , Watts bursts in with his second Sony disc Bar Talk that will be released in August. It's a good one. Almost all originals featuring people like Ravi Coltrane and James Genus There's appearances by Michael Brecker and Branford and others. The compositions are solid and, even though Watts feels he could have been stronger, he knows it's OK, because he is going to continue to grow. He can't wait to take the music out on the road later this year and work it out, fine-tuning it even more.

And by the way, don't take him literally about the disc. Watts is hard on himself as an artist, always looking to get better. Bar Talk is damn good. It grooves. It cooks. "Mr. JJ," for example, steams along with help from Joey Caldorazzo's driving piano over Watts' polyrhythms. "Kiss," is a sweet melody that he pushes softly. Coltrane's soprano soars over the beat as the tune slowly catches more fire. The performances are solid throughout and there are other elements besides mainstream jazz tossed in for good measure. (No Wynton clone, he feels there's room for many things in the music called jazz).

"Composition is still pretty new to me, so I'm just trying whatever it takes," says Watts.

That's cool. He should keep it up. Bar Talk is a solid effort in a busy career and the music created here is bound to change and become even better live. Watts is just looking at musicians and learning for a time, he said, and he took some time to speak about it all.

All About Jazz (AAJ): It's sort of rare that drummers get to headline on CDs. How do you feel about the new CD and what kind of statement, if any, are you trying to make? There's a lot of originals on there.

Jeff Watts (JW): Some of the songs are very jazzy and some of the songs use jazz in addition to other elements. I don't really know what to say about it. It's just stuff I happen to write. A lot of jazz records are put together typically. There's your fast tune and your ballad There tends to be a certain type of architecture to it. But I just try to write songs that utilize improvisation, but aren't necessarily blowing things. I didn't want to have vehicles for everybody to show how much they practiced. I just wanted to have music.

AAJ: How do you compose as a drummer? Is it a little different approach when you sit down to write?

JW: Pretty typically. There's a drummer in Detroit named Lawrence Williams, who's a great composer. Some of his music is featured on albums by, like, Geri Allen and Marcus Bellgrave and people like that. One device that people from Detroit told me that he used was that he would, before even thinking melodically, he would write out a whole rhythmic idea. A whole thing that made complete musical sense, but only using rhythm. Then he would assign notes to it. That's something I tried on a couple of the tracks. Composition is still pretty new to me, so I'm just trying whatever it takes. But most of the time I have an idea and I'll sing it. And then whenever it starts to make a certain amount of sense, I'll go to the piano. And then the song will kind of unfold.

So most things I write from the piano. Some things I play a little bass lines that you can endure hearing over and over [laughter]. And then try to go somewhere with that. I've just really been messing around with it the past six years.

AAJ: So even as a drummer, it's not necessarily rhythm at the center. You're thinking of melodies.

JW: Yeah. Melodies and moods. I worked on some things on my instrument and I want to play and feature that stuff, but also I just want to use music to make people feel a certain way, also.

AAJ: Do you feel you captured what you wanted to capture?

JW: This record, as far as my own playing consistently throughout the record, it's coming from a lot of different places. So stylistically, there are some things I would have liked to have been more prepared to play, but I think I played the different vibes well enough for the songs to come to life. But I wish that I had more time to work on all these things individually. But then that gives me some place to go. Because all these tunes, when I play them live, I'll really find out what I want to play on them as a drummer.

AAJ: Are you touring in support of it, or playing with other groups this summer?

JW: In the proper summer festival season, I'll tend to be home. But whenever the record comes out, I'll be in Chicago and on the west coast and east coast. I'll just be trying to do all those clubs that I've done many times as a sideman. I'll be trying to go into those markets as a leader.

I've been doing a certain amount of low-key gigs with my group I various forms since my first record Citizen Tain came out. I haven't toured a lot, but there's a lot of music from both records in the band's book, and a whole lot of other music too the people haven't heard. It'll be good for me and think people will definitely dig it.

AAJ: Is it difficult being a drummer, a sideman, albeit with a lot of great players, then saying "OK, I want to be out front"? I got my own group and I want to play my own music."

JW: I guess so. It's an opportunity. On the financial end, it's going to be something different. I'm prepared for the prospect of doing sideman gigs to subsidize my leader stuff, at least at the outset. It's all an investment in myself. So it's not that bad.

AAJ: You're from Pittsburgh, where a few great drummers came from. You started playing in the fourth grade, but did you pick up sticks before that?

JW: Not at all. Never even thought about the concept of music. My parents didn't have a record player. Didn't collect music. My older brothers did collect music, mostly what was on the radio—Motown, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. Stuff like that, which is all great.

AAJ: You took it up I school

JW: Yeah. They give you general music classes for the first few years of elementary school, and then you get to a certain age and they ask people if you want to play an instrument. Off the top of my head, the thing that came to mind was to be a trumpet player, because it looked fun and cool. You could play some "legit" music on it, but you could also jam around and have fun with it. I think what happened is the instructor told me my teeth were incorrect to play the trumpet. Since then I've talked to trumpet players and they said my teeth weren't that bad. So what I suspect was, they ran out of trumpets. So I wouldn't cry, they said my teeth were completely wrong.

So I played one drum for a couple years. Did the school band thing, the orchestral thing for awhile.

AAJ: The music of the day wasn't jazz. Were you listening to jazz or other stuff?

JW: In fourth grade I just played band music. In sixth grade I got a little drum set, playing stuff that was on the radio. Growing up in Pittsburgh at hat time it was very easy for a young musician to not get a clear view of what jazz was. So on the high school level, I was still pretty much unaware of classic jazz figures, other than certain Big Band people because the Big Band thing is easily marketed to schools, because they can interest young people and interest a larger amount of young people. The stuff that was jazz based, that I would be aware of, would be if the Woody Herman band was coming to town or Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson. I met Louie Bellson once when I was 17, and he was nice. Those were the things I was aware of. I'd see Buddy Rich on the "Tonight Show."

So, I was kind of aware of straight-ahead type jazz, only in that capacity. Then when I got to be about 15 or 16, my brothers started to get me jazz fusion records, like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and things like that. I kind of back tracked from there.

AAJ: Moving on in school you stayed in Pittsburgh.

JW: Yeah. I went to Duquesne University as a classical major, played tympani on a number of things; did operas and musicals and new music and stuff like that. I started my collegiate training to be a symphonic percussionist. But then as I started to play more drum set, I adjusted my thing. I wanted to be able to perform authentically and accurately on the classical percussion, but also plays different styles on the drum set. So I heard about Harvey Mason, and how he studied at the New England Conservatory, and how he was capable of all these different things in a studio setting. So I started trying to be versatile. My thirst to explore jazz was pretty much out of that, out of a wanting to be versatile and sound decent in a jazz setting if anyone asked me to do that.

AAJ: Were you gigging around town, or mostly school?

JW: Mostly school when I was in Pittsburgh. When I really started to play around town, it was while I was in college, an occasional jazz gig, and R&B group called Flavor that was around. We played stuff on the radio and it was fun. When I transferred to Berkley and went to Boston, I really started to play with people a lot on the drums and really fell in love with jazz specifically. I was still trying to play everything and prepare myself to get some kind of gig, any gig, when I got out of school.

AAJ: You ran into a lot of jazz musicians at Berkley?

JW: Yeah. It was also when Branford [Marsalis] went and also Donald Harrison, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and Cindy Blackman and Kevin Eubanks. There was like a dozen or so people pretty prominent today. It was a very different time. There were a lot of people experimenting with jazz education as it existed during that time. It's probably better now. There's a lot more curriculum and facilities and stuff like that, specifically for jazz now as opposed to then.

AAJ: When did it start really becoming serious with jazz for your career? You went with Wynton [Marsalis] around this time?

JW: I guess so. That's pretty much it. I was trying to prepare myself to do gigs. By the time Wynton called me, I'd been pretty much listening to jazz just for a couple of years. He called me and we made his first record.

AAJ: You knew Branford from school.

JW: Yeah. Brandford put together Wynton's first band. Because Wynton was pretty busy. He was doing Art Blakey's thing, then he had a stint with Herbie Hancock's quartet, and doing classical stuff. So he was around New York, but I guess he trusted his judgment, so Branford kind of put the first band together.

AAJ: Was that your first big break?

JW: Yeah. That's about it.

AAJ: You were with him for how long?

JW: About six years. All of his recordings in jazz that have won Grammies, I'm on those. They kind of stopped giving them to him later on. But he has a Pulitzer, so I guess who needs a Grammy?

AAJ: When Branford split from Wynton, you split with him?

JW: Branford and Kenny Kirkland, they stopped working with the group in 1985. The band started in 1982, from his first record. They went and started working with Sting. I stayed around. The band changed into a quartet that did a few records, with Robert Hurst on bass and Marcus Roberts on piano. It was a different direction from the first band, transitional as far as Wynton's palette. He's definitely started to play more standards and go into early music more. His first band was more about blowing and improvisation and trying to do things in different formats. The second band, we still interpreted a lot of original music, but we just played more standards. I started to add a lot of systems and sequences and things to make the time feel more improvised. I kind of implemented that stuff with Wynton and the band to kind of give the group a different sound.

AAJ: Who were your influences, as drummers.

JW: The same old names keep popping up, but there's a reason for it. You know. Definitely Elvin Jones was a big influence. Roy Haynes. Art Blakey, Ed Blackwell. Drummers from other music like Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham, stuff like that. The seminal jazz guys. When I was trying to learn about jazz, I tended to focus at first on bebop people and people after that, so the classic bebop guys like Roy, Art and Max Roach. And then going up into the modern thing with Philly Joe Jones and Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Ed Blackwell and people like that.

But, a lot of the way people tell you to study that stuff is based on learning what these people did and learning vocabulary and stuff like that. But then later on, I started to listen to Monk's music. It was less vocabulary based and more about the arrangement, helping the song to move forward and stuff like that. So, while I learned from these other cats, my approach, even though it might not sound like it, is more out of a simpler, broader thing that's really just from music; listening to Monk's music and also Papa Jo Jones. He was a virtuoso, but he didn't really have a lot of signature licks, he just could really play the instrument well, and it kind of opened things up for me. It may not be a classic jazz lick, but my criteria became: as long as it's swinging, and things are in service to the music, then it's valid.

AAJ: You were with Wynton Marsalis for quite a long time. He's become this lightning rod for the debate about the conservative approach. Is he too conservative? He says jazz has to be in a certain bag. Is he wrong? Why do you think that is and what is your take on it?

JW: I think his thing is some kind of template that maybe he feels needs to be implemented so that there's a very classical architecture that's somewhat etched in stone. My impression over the time I played with him is sort of like: He was trying to establish a criteria, really concrete thing, that makes jazz what it is, with a similar architecture to classical music. But the music is so esoteric and comes from so many places that to qualify deeply, it seems like it takes away from it.

I'm not completely into codifying the music and saying that it should be a certain way, the bottom line, I guess, would be that by presenting it in such a fashion—in nice, neat little chunks, neat little bites—he was able to make a very focused point for jazz education and have music become accredited, like it about five years ago or something like that. Which opens things up for government funding for the arts and things like that, which creates opportunities for musicians to have more instruments in certain schools and things like that. And ultimately, it helps the music.

Philosophically, point-to-point, I'm not completely on board. But, the result is good. It just gives the appearance of more structure within the music. So it's easy to involve young people and gets things done.

AAJ: You're more into stretching more where it's possible, or incorporating other elements into the music?

JW: I guess I am. But there's always a kind of a balance. When do you kind of let go of tradition and speak your own mind? I think maybe a few years ago I would look at things and look at certain musicians, even myself, and kind of say perhaps they could have used a little more foundation in their approach before they experimented. But ultimately, it's not for me to say. Some people are going to sound a certain way and it's all good. Ultimately it's about expression. Musicians have to satisfy themselves and I'm definitely not the one to try to tell them how to solo or what the backdrops for the improvisation should be.

AAJ: This controversy with Wynton and the Ken Burns film, "Jazz." Was it too conservative or harmful, or is the discussion just a lot of hot air?

JW: It's probably harmful, certain things that were omitted from the film. As an entry, for people just learning about the music, ultimately they'll find it, if they investigate at all and they're really interested. It should be taken as just one man's or two men's story, and not the be-all, end-all of what's going on.

My main quibble would be the fact that I think that Miles Davis, despite any detraction made by anybody just based on their preference, to not explore [his whole career]... It's kind of like Miles Davis' story ended with the Bitches Brew thing and it just died. But if you pick up that arc of his life from when he retired up until the present, you have a really, really hip artistic story. It's really a beautiful story. Some people aren't really feeling the records of his that came out in the 80s. I could have had a slightly stilted view toward some of them, but I was actually at that very first gig when he came back in Boston. I was living in Boston and I stood in line for hours to get those tickets so I could see Miles Davis play.

I think that they needed to show the complete art. It seemed like the film just said: He had some good bands; he knew how to put them together, then he kind of dropped the ball in the 70s and lived happily ever after.

AAJ: Like Wynton's stance. That's probably why it ended so abruptly.

JW: Yeah. It's a really beautiful story of an artist. To show that Miles did his stuff in the 70s, and he felt like he wasn't hearing anything, so he took a break. And then came back in conjunction with Marcus Miller and some other people. But people should know that music that came out influenced jazz today. Miles also managed to have an influence on pop music. So texturally, I think that artists like A Tribe Called Quest, or Erykah Badu, certain feelings and grooves and colors that are used by people like Mary J. Blige, probably Sting and probably some other people, a lot of that texturally and feel-wise wouldn't sound the way it sounds today if Miles Davis hadn't specifically done that stuff in the 80s.

It's cool. You don't have to say it's oo-bop-shabam jazz. But, when you cover an important artist, they needed to show that whole arc, and show how he had an influence on all this music. The stuff from the 70s is still influencing like drum and bass, jungle music and also popular music. To take a break, and be in the center of something that influences music that's going on right now, whether you like it or not. Just say something about how you can use jazz to do different things, other than just play your baddest solo.

AAJ: How did the "Tonight Show" thing go? You were already with Branford.

JW: Yeah. I'd been with Branford. I stopped working with Wynton in 1988. Over the next year and a half I was just bouncing around. I did some work with McCoy Tyner. I did almost a year touring with George Benson, doing mostly his pop thing, but at European festivals it became a more jazzy thing. We did things in conjunction with people like Jack McDuff and Clark Terry and James Moody. I definitely learned some things from that. The Branford put together his quartet. We toured for a couple of years.

The quartet became a trio for a time and we worked on some other music. I was able to learn some things from that setting. And then the opportunity to do the "Tonight Show" presented itself. I actually think that Branford didn't want to do it. He didn't see himself doing it. The guys in the band said, "You might want to look at this." It was actually something we never actually pursued. It wasn't a question of "Let's do it," so something can happen or it was such a happening job. It was more of a sense of, "Why not do it?"

AAJ: Branford didn't seem comfortable in the non-music role Where he'd banter with Jay Leno.

JW: Who Branford? Yeah.

AAJ: I don't know if Branford influenced it, but it seems like you guys had more jazz guests. I remember when you had Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Herbie and Wallace Roney in the tribute after Miles died. That probably wouldn't have happened if Branford wasn't there.

JW: There was definitely more accommodating jazz during the first couple years that we were there. Sonny Rollins came on. Joe Henderson came on. Also, we played with Betty Carter there. The Lincoln Center Orchestra was on. Harry Connick Jr., who will still be on there, for other reasons.

But, at a certain point the show was really getting beaten up by the David Letterman show, as far as ratings, which is the bottom line. There is a tendency within the hierarchy to keep pointing fingers until you get somewhere where everybody can really point the fingers. It was really easy to point the finger at this bunch of New York guys that moved all the way out here and they're playing a bunch of crazy stuff. They instructed us to play things that were "upbeat and recognizable." Those were the specific words. So, we kind of did that.

We started out playing fusion, jazz, Latin jazz, rock, a variety of things. It kind of turned into that. After a while it wasn't upbeat and recognizable enough, so they specifically cut the jazz jugular vein. Then we really had to sneak and disguise jazz to play it at all during the show. Even though it's just to keep the audience excited during commercials. We used to play with a lot of musical guests and artists on the show, but some people in the group really didn't want to do that. But I thought that was one thing that really kept it somewhat interesting for me. So we started backing up less musical guests, and we just really turned into a hokey house band.

The whole experience was fun for like maybe a year, a year and a half. I played with Lou Rawls, Johnny Mathis, Elton John. It was definitely fun on that level. But after a while the grim reality set in that when you do something over an extended period, it becomes who you are. I started to see that's who I was. I'd grab my lunchbox and jump on the Freeway in my nice car and drive to the valley and work with these people every day, every day, week after week.

It was to the point that among the jazz cognoscenti of the area, I became kind of a local. So when jazz guys from New York would play in Los Angeles, people would talk to me like I didn't even know these people. They would say, "You really gotta see this. Have you ever heard this guy?" I was like, "Yeah. He's one of my best friends." "Yeah, but you gotta go see him." I was like an alien in jazz. It was really bizarre.

That experience made me start writing, out of frustration. So I started to write. Whenever certain guys would some in town, I'd rent studio time and we'd go and record some of my music, so that I'd feel like I was working on something when I lived there. I definitely learned some things about myself, being out there. Cause I was left with not much else.

AAJ: From there, you've been with various people through now.

JW: Yeah. Michael Brecker.

AAJ: Are you happy with the way your career has gone? Things have been steady. The music has been quality and it seems successful.

JW: It feels pretty successful to me. I could be flipping burgers It's very cool. I've had a great time. If I choose to, I can just play with people that I love to play with and also my good friends, which comes in handy when you're traveling. I'm very fortunate.

AAJ: Are you pushing more to get your own thing out there, or more as a sideman?

JW: A mixture of things. I think that if I can just consistently have the opportunity to work with my group for like a third of the time, or maybe half of the time, certain years, depending on the project, whatever the project needs, as far myself promoting it and playing that music. If I can have that type of thing where I can spend that much time of the year. It's about being able to present how I feel and bounce that off of people and then go back and make more music.

I read something a couple of years ago where Dave Holland speaks about the whole process of writing music for records, rehearsing it, recording it, and then going out and performing said music. Then ultimately, that's when you really find out what you can and should play on the composition. That information, that stuff, it forms future compositions, and it just goes around in a circle. You find out what to play on it, you play it in front of people, and you learn little things about pacing and presentation of the tune that influences what you write in the future. I'm looking forward to feeling that artistic cycle.

AAJ: What are you doing this summer?

JW: I have a few things with Branford, but I'm really just trying listen to musicians and make sure I have a certain amount of musicians available to make the music for my projects sound right. I'll just be writing some new things. I have other new things to present. Just dealing with that conceptually. Stuff like that. I want to become stronger as an artist. People will be coming to see me, so I want to sound better.

Photo Credit

Cees van de Ven


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