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Jeff "Tain" Watts: The Tain Self-Test

By Published: January 19, 2009

AAJ: And what's your process? Do you write with a keyboard, pencil and paper, on the computer? How do you go about writing a song?

JTW: Just about every kind of way. Early on I wrote with just pencil and paper and I was really into that. I carried around a manuscript book and I would write at home in New York on the piano, I would write in hotel rooms in Europe and Japan or whatever, just go find a piano and try to write some stuff. Now I mostly use the Sibelius program and I'll write at the piano. I'll think of melodies in my head and I'll sing them to myself and then I'll figure out the skeletal thing of the harmony, the basics of the harmony. I'll go to the piano to verify what I hear and I have an acoustic bass at home, so I'll usually check bass lines to make sure they're not too awkward for the bassist, that they make sense. Lines that are technically too difficult for me to try to pick out at the piano, I'll go to my marimba and play them there. A combination of that and Sibelius kind of makes it a little easier for me.

AAJ: Let's go to your new record and label.

JTW: Dark Key is the label and the record's called Watts.

AAJ: This is with Terence Blanchard, Branford and Christian McBride—first time you're using a trumpeter and not using a pianist. What's it about?

JTW: It's about—ah I don't know—I just start to accumulate tunes and I start thinking of how to present them and part of the inspiration for this record is...I guess Mingus Presents Mingus [Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid, 1960)] in a way—the piano-less quartet vibe there—and so that kind of pushed me in the political direction. I don't really know what to say about it. I just wanted to hear these musicians in a space where they have some room to play. There's not a lot of stuff with McBride in a piano-less setting, so that you can just hear him really stretch out and feature the bass. We really haven't done much without piano in the last ten years probably, so it just seemed like a natural thing. And Terence—I just ran into him in Sweet Rhythm and I was thinking of using trumpet and I hadn't recorded anything with him since his first Columbia CD.

AAJ: How do you like having your own label?

JTW: (laughs) I recommend it to a lot of people. Once you get past the initial fear of funding your own project—because everybody is just accustomed to, "Okay, I'm getting this much money and they're going to help me sell my recording and basically I'll be a slave to them for a while because I'll probably never recoup enough to get anything other than publishing royalties." But once you get past that, it's really cool. In one respect, you're really testing yourself to see how much you believe in your music because you're putting your own money up.

AAJ: What advice do you have for the young drummer starting out in jazz today?

JTW: Listen to a whole lot of music; be really, really open. Take advantage of the technology that's available to assist you in acquiring documented music and also for composing. Just for drummers in general, I would say play hand drums and play some keyboards. But mainly just trust yourself and not be so locked in to convention, to allow for some different stuff to happen.

Selected Discography

Jeff "Tain" Watts, Watts (Dark Key Music, 2008)

McCoy Tyner, Quartet (Half Note, 2007)

Branford Marsalis, Footsteps of Our Fathers (Marsalis Music-Rounder, 2001)

Jeff "Tain" Watts, Citizen Tain (Columbia, 1998)

Branford Marsalis, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Columbia, 1991)

Wynton Marsalis, Black Codes (From the Underground) (Columbia, 1985)

Photo Credits

Top photo: Courtesy of Hans Speeken Brink

Bottom photo: Barry Quick

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