Ernie Watts: Flying High

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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.

Selected Discography

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)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: William Clayton, courtesy of Ernie Watts

Bottom Photo: Patricia Watts


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