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.
AAJ: A less obvious choice perhaps is [vocalist] Rickie Lee Jones' "Company.
EW: That's a very beautiful tune. I heard it when [vocalist] Diane Reeves sang it at the funeral of a friend of mine, the road manager for George Wein's Festival Company, and it made me cry, so I decided to record it.
AAJ: Taking you back if I may, your first major gig was with [drummer] Buddy Richyou left Berklee to join his him in the mid-sixties, but why did you leave the Buddy Rich Orchestra?
EW: Well, I had been there for about a year-and-a-half, and we recorded about three albums, and it was just time to move on. I wasn't sure whether to move to California or New York but I preferred California so I moved there. I started to work in the studios doing record sessions and films and TV, that kind of thing.
EW: No, it just evolved. When I left Buddy's band I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew that I liked California as a place to live but I didn't know anything about the studio scene, what was involved in all of that and I figured I would just get with another band out of California and play; that's what I always wanted to do.
So I went to L.A. and started getting calls to substitute at rehearsals and concerts of saxophonists who were very busyBuddy Collette, I started subbing for him and other great studio players like Plas Johnson, and Bill Green. You know, so I started as a substitute for them and then what happened was I started getting my own calls and getting my own gigs. It just grew, it evolved. I did that for years. I still had my group, I had a quartet and I would play my music and work on my tunes and do clubs so it was always a combination of that.
AAJ: You've done a truly phenomenal amount of recording sessions. Are there any that stand out as ones you are particularly proud of?
EW: I enjoyed all the Motown sessions a lot, working with [saxophonist/arranger] Oliver Nelson. Touring with Oliver Nelson, [saxophonist] Cannonball Adderley. [Guitarist] Frank Zappa was very interestinghe's quite a musician. A lot of musicians who were improvisersI did a lot of things with [saxophonist] Benny Golson and [trombonist] J.J. Johnson.
All of these people were in L.A. at that time and they were getting into films and TV When I was working with Oliver Nelson we were doing The Six million Dollar Man. He was writing all that stuff and we were playing on all of that too besides playing with his band.
There's a wonderful composer and band leader in L.A. called Gerald WilsonI played with Gerald for years and then I was also in the Tonight Show band for twenty years.
AAJ: What years were you with Oliver Nelson?
EW: It was when I moved to L.A. in '68 so I played with Oliver from '68 up until the time he died. We did a State Department tour to Africa in '69 with the Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961) seven-piece band. We played all of that music.
AAJ: How did that go down with the Africans?
EW: They loved it. People really love live music. They get connected with the energy no matter what the genre is. I think they really connect with the energy. We played some with them, they had their bands and we went to hear them in Mali and Senegal. There were all these great players with the drum choruses so it was quite a nice experience. That was fun.
AAJ: Gerald Wilson, who I guess is in his late eighties, won the Jazz Journalists Association Award for Large Ensemble in 2006. Has he been an influence on you as far as arranging music goes?
EW: I enjoyed his music. He really has a sound, the way he writes for the sections and it's a real jazz band. You know, a lot of big bands are mostly ensemble and then there's a solo here and a solo there, but it's usually the writer's skill. But with Gerald's band it was a real jazz band. When you had the opportunity to play, the solos were long and it was a very creative environment to be in and he was very flexible in that way.
EW: No, I think what he was at heart was a classical composer, a contemporary classical composer like [Olivier] Messiaen or those people. The music we did on The Grand Wazoo and some of his other things were like contemporary, symphonic pieces with a rock rhythm section. He used the rhythm section with orchestra colors and orchestral technique, and the orchestral vocabulary that he had was contemporary classical music. It was like Stravinsky with a rhythm section.
And then during that same period we did [violinist] Jean-Luc Ponty's album King Kong (World Pacific Jazz, 1969). That was some of Frank's tunes and Frank produced and arranged that. That was a jazz project and he did a beautiful job.
AAJ: You've played in a lot of big bands, have you ever wanted to lead one yourself?
EW: Not really. The main thing I'm interested in is improvising, and to me it seems like the smaller the group the more freedom you have. If I'm playing with a quartet and I want to do a duet with the pianist I can look at the bassist and the drummer and they'll lay out, so there's a lot of little flexible things that you can do with a small group that you can't do with a big band.
I like small groups and that's what I grew up with. I grew up listening to Miles, Coltrane, and Cannonball so I've always been a quartet/quintet person, that energy, that kind of interplay.
AAJ: And from big bands to very small ones indeed, you've recorded several albums with just sax and piano which is quite a departure from your usual environment. How much of a challenge was that to you?
EW: Well, it's a different kind of focus and it's very exposed. You have to be very prepared. It's almost like playing a classical recital. It's a wonderful discipline.
AAJ: In the late '80s you were playing in [guitarist] Pat Metheny's quartet and you did a tour which to me sounds unbelievableThe Pat Metheny Quartet with [bassist] Charlie Haden, the Miles Davis band and [pianist/band leader/child of Saturn] Sun Ra. That must have been quite an experience.
EW: That was the Japanese Live under the Sky tour. It was great. We heard Miles every day, we heard Sun Ra every day and it was just a very pleasant experience to be involved with all of that music. Then we did a tour of Brazil and Argentina. We did three tours and I don't think any of that music got recorded.
AAJ: Having played in quite a number of important big bandsBuddy Rich, Gerald Wilson, Oliver Nelson, the Liberation Music Orchestra, how do you rate Sun Ra's Arkestra?
EW: I enjoyed it; it was totally unique to listen to. And then they had their own way of presenting the music, all dressed up. But he came out of that big band tradition. To me he reminds me a lot of [pianist] Thelonious [Monk]. How Thelonious was there when all of the bebop thing was coming together with [trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie, but Monk was there and he had his own way. Monk had his own way of hearing and dealing with the bop idiom. Sun Ra was like that.
I mean he'd been there, [saxophonist/bandleader] Jimmie Lunceford and all of that stuff. He's heard and been involved with all of that stuff and he had his own his own sound. And that's what's so great about these guys, you know, Monk and Sun Ra and those people that were totally unique. Even though they were in a certain period they had their own thing aside from what was going on and that's very important.
AAJ: I find it quite hard to visualize Miles in his '80s get-up, Sun Ra with his spangly cloak... did you have to wear funny costumes too to be part of that tour?
EW: No! [laughs]
AAJ: And did you all get together in the evening and play Trivial Pursuits or Monopoly with Sun Ra and Miles?
EW: [laughs] We were all there for the concerts and then everybody was staying in different hotels so I would only see them at the concerts but it was great listening to the music. [Saxophonist] Kenny Garrett was with Miles at that time and he was playing beautifully.
AAJ: Can you tell us a little about your connection with Charlie Haden? I think it's fair to say a fairly important figure in your career.
EW: I met Charlie at a concert. There was as saxophone piece that was written for me to perform for saxophone and orchestra written by Michel Colombier, who was a wonderful composer. I was performing this piece called "Nightbird at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A., where the orchestra used to perform, and Charlie was backstage. So he introduced himself and we talked about playing together and it evolved from there. I played with the Liberation Music Orchestra in L.A., and then we got involved with Pat Metheny and we did the concert tour with Pat, and shortly after that we coordinated the Quartet West project and that's been going on for almost twenty years now. That's great and I think we're going to do another recording.
AAJ: You conduct music workshops periodically, how important is your role as a music educator to you?
EW: I think it's really important to share, to communicate with people on a one-to-one basis so that young players know what's involved, and learn about discipline and what's necessary to play well.
I don't teach regularly, I don't have any kind of university post. About half a dozen times a year I do college clinics and workshops and when I go to Europe I do some workshops for the saxophone company I'm with, Keilwerth. 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.
AAJ:Is there one overriding message that you try to get across in these workshops?
EW: The basic message is always freedom through discipline. You can't break the rules until you know the rules. My whole playing concept and the way I think about music comes from the discipline, you know, really learning your instrument well and learning about music so that you have a good vocabulary. Your ability to play the instrument is very firmly rooted and so when you play you are free, you have the freedom to express yourself.
It comes down to practice; it's about spending time with your instrument. It's a hands-on thing. That shouldn't be any problem because you're playing music because you love music. You should want to play your instrument as much as you can because it brings you joy. Why should practice be drudgery? It's an opportunity to do something that you love.
Ernie Watts Quartet, Analog Man (Flying Dolphin Records, 2007)
Jeremy Monteiro, Homecoming (Jazznote, 2006)
Ernie Watts Quartet, Spirit Song (Flying Dolphin Records, 2005)
Ernie Watts Quartet, Alive (Flying Dolphin Records, 2004)
Ernie Watts/Ron Feuer, Reflections (Adventure Productions, 2003)
Ernie Watts/Christof Sanger, Blue Topaz (Laika Records, 2000)
Ernie Watts, Classic Moods (JVC, 1998)
Ernie Watts, The Long Road Home (JVC, 1996)
Ernie Watts, Unity (JVC, 1995)
Ernie Watts, Reaching Up (JVC, 1994)
Ernie Watts/Gilberto Gil, Afoxe (CTI Records, 1991)
Charlie Haden Quartet West, Always say Goodbye (UMG, 1993)
Charlie Haden, Haunted Heart (Verve, 1990)
Charlie Haden Quartet West, (Verve, 1987)
Ernie Watts, Sanctuary (Qwest Records, 1986)
Ernie Watts, Musician (Qwest Records, 1985)
Ernie Watts, Chariots of Fire (Qwest Records, 1982)
Cannonball Adderley Quartet, Music, You All (Capital, 1972)
Frank Zappa, The Grand Wazoo (Zappa Records, 1972)
Richard Groove Holmes/Ernie Watts, Come Together (World Pacific Jazz, 1970)
James Brown, Soul on Top (Verve, 1970)
Jean-Luc Ponty, King Kong (World Pacific Jazz, 1969)
Buddy Rich, Buddy and Soul (Pacific Jazz, 1969)
Thelonious Monk, Monk's Blues (Sony, 1968)
Buddy Rich, Big Swing Face (Blue Note, 1967)
Top Photo: William Clayton, courtesy of Ernie Watts
Bottom Photo: Patricia Watts