Ernie Watts: Flying High
“ I just think it's important to share; that's what the music is about, that's how the music evolves and that's how the music stays alive. ”
Very few musicians have a resume quite as varied or as impressive as saxophonist Ernie Watts. His musical curiosity and tremendous versatility have led him to perform in contexts as diverse as a TV show band, with orchestras, on small and big screen soundtracks, on over five hundred recording sessions which include many of the greatest names in Motown, in duo and in quartet settings as well as in a number of the most distinguished big bands in modern jazz history.
Over the years, the likes of Thelonious Monk, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny have all come knocking on the door of one of the most respected of post-Coltrane saxophonists. Doubtless it was the honing of Watts' skills in such varied musical environments which led legendary jazz critic and writer Nat Hentoff to refer to his "total command of his instrument.
The 2007 release of Analog Man, on his own Flying Dolphin Records label, is further proof, as if any were needed, of the creative fire that still burns in his belly over forty years after debuting in the orchestra of Buddy Rich.
All About Jazz caught up with Ernie Watts after a concert in Bangkok.
All About Jazz: Your new record, Analog Man is out on Flying Dolphin Records' a label which you and your wife Patricia started together. When did you set it up?
Ernie Watts: About two-and-a-half years ago we were in Germany doing a tour with my European quartet that I tour with a couple of times a year, (pianist) Christof Saenger, (bassist) Rudi Engel and (drummer) Heinrich Koebberling, and we've been playing together for seven or eight years. We had a concert in a little town called Fulda and the club was set up to record. So they recorded us and when we listened to it sounded really great, and so we used that as our very first CD for Flying Dolphin Records. Alive (Flying Dolphin Records, 2004) was our first project and it was live.
And then we did our second project a couple of years ago which was called Spirit Song (Flying Dolphin Records, 2005) which was with my L.A. quartet. Then there's a duo project that I did with my friend Ron Feuer and it's called Reflections (Adventure Productions, 2003), and that's now on Flying Dolphin also. It's growing, it's expanding. All the things I did for Japanese label JVC we now have the rights to and they're all going to be on Flying Dolphin.
AAJ: What led you to set up your own record company? What was the motivation behind that?
EW: Basically nobody was interested. Nobody wanted to help. And the people who did didn't really want to do what I wanted to do. So we decided to start a company of our own so I wouldn't have to worry about what material to play, how long the tune should be; if we want to play a tune for fourteen minutes we can play for fourteen minutes, or do an unaccompanied solo. So it's a more expressive, creative environment because we have control of the material.
AAJ: What's the story behind the title, Analog Man?
EW: It's a funny story which I often tell. I'm an analog man in a digital world. I must be the only man left on the planet who doesn't operate a computer.
EW: [laughs] Yeah, something like that. Our music is acoustic, it's analog.
AAJ: You did make an album years ago with Richard Groove Holmes [Come Together (World Pacific Jazz, 1970)], in which you used electronic effects. Was that recording simply a product of its time, everyone was experimenting then?
EW: It was something that was going on at the time and I experimented. Bill Perkins, who was a great saxophonist and an electronics wizard created a saxophone that was synthesized with switches on all the keysI've tried all these things. I have a Wind Driver at home that I've used, but for me the essence of the music is playing the saxophoneit's breathing, it's speaking, it's singing, it's alive, it's organic. That's what I do.
AAJ: There are three covers on Analog Man; [pianist, percussionist] Victor Feldman's "Joshua is well-known but I wonder how you came to choose the other two songs?
EW: I used to play with Victor Feldman way back, we had a band together, I guess that was '69. Those were the days when everyone was doing studio sessions, you'd look over and there'd be Victor Feldman on percussion. That song was named after his son. It's just a great song. Miles [Davis] recorded it a couple of times.
AAJ: And it's a stonking version you've done of it on Analog Man. What about [bassist] Francois Moutin's "Clinton Parkview ?
EW: I travel a lot and meet a lot of musicians, and one time I was playing with Lew Soloff, who is a wonderful trumpet player, for a couple of nights at the Sweet Rhythm, New York in a quartet with (drummer) Jeff "Tain Watts, (pianist) Mulgrew Miller, and the bassist was Francois Moutin. You know, you're always looking for a tune so when I heard "Clifton Parkview. I asked him if I could use it.