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Jeff "Tain" Watts: Jazz For The Modern Age

By Published: October 15, 2007

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 relationship—did 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 records—speaking 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?

Jeff 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 someplace—this is probably like the mid-'80s—and 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 time—not 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.

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