Ernie Watts: Flying High

Ian Patterson By

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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.

ErnieAAJ: You mentioned Frank Zappa, you played on Zappa's album The Grand Wazoo (Zappa Records, 1972); do you think Zappa was a jazzer at heart?

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 unbelievable—The 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.

ErnieAAJ: Having played in quite a number of important big bands—Buddy 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.

Ernie WattsAAJ: 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.

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