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Jeff "Tain" Watts: Jazz For The Modern Age

Jason Crane By

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And then Kenny [Kirkland] just told me that if I didn't like Keith Jarrett, then I was stupid. So I was like, 'I guess I should check out Keith Jarrett.'
Jeff 'Tain' Watts If you've listened to any jazz at all in the past couple decades, you've probably heard drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. His discography is long and impressive, including appearances on many Grammy-winning and critically acclaimed recordings by various men named Marsalis. He's also led several of his own dates, including the new album Folk's Songs (Dark Key Music, 2007) with his band The Ebonix.

All About Jazz contributor Jason Crane talked with Watts about his roots, his musical relationships, and the burgeoning career of vocalist Juan Tainish.

All About Jazz: What is it about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that led you to compose a tune for him?

Jeff "Tain" Watts: As I learned more about his source material ... there's something that I wrote in the liner notes about the tune originally being about a filmmaker, but I couldn't get past a certain point. The sensibility that I was going for, I guess, it was originally for [filmmaker] Martin Scorsese. I was going for an old New York thing, but timeless at the same time.

I moved to New York in the early '80s, I guess 1982. It was a different New York than the one that we have now. After Rudolph Giuliani. When I decided to dedicate it to a filmmaker rather than a painter, Basquiat was my choice because that's the period when I could see some of his work in the city. His work is informed by a certain amount of abstract stuff and certain amount of classic structure. But of course with the graffiti that he would do, it reflected New York right at that time. His work has quotations that have to do with bebop and some historical things from jazz music, in addition to early hip hop. Those elements that were present in New York when I got there. He represents that for me.

AAJ: How is New York different now?

J"T"W: New York City now is markedly safer, much more tourist-friendly, and property values are soaring. It's all good, but it's easily a more boring place as a result. [laughs] Something about New York back then—it felt more like a large city in Europe. There was less dependence on the tourist trade. New York just assumed that it was the greatest city in the world, and it had a gritty feeling to it. Now it's a lot safer, it's definitely a lot safer. But it just feels different.

JeffAAJ: Did you go to New York right from Pittsburgh, where you grew up?

J"T"W: No, I was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. That's where I met Branford [Marsalis], then I moved from there to New York to be in the first Wynton Marsalis quintet.

AAJ: I read that you have the distinction of being on all of those two Marsalis' Grammy-winning records.

J"T"W: In the big picture, a Grammy Award is what it is, and not necessarily reflective of high artistry or anything, as we know from watching the telecast each year. But it means something to some people, and it is a fact. But I'd tell that to people who know me reasonably well, and they'd question it. "You're the only one who's on all of them? What about Kenny Kirkland? No ... Marcus Roberts? I guess not."

AAJ: Talking about Branford, he and his inspiration appear on this record as well. One is on a sequel to a tune from his Braggtown (Marsalis Music, 2006) album. That tune was called "Blackzilla." On this record, we're treated to not just the "son of," but the "Seed of Blackzilla." Talk about Blackzilla and your longtime relationship with Branford.

J"T"W: The "Blackzilla" thing had its inspiration in the actual Godzilla films and the music from them. There were a couple scenes that I reworked and twisted to put into this tune. But I'll tell, I was sitting at home and Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla came on cable—

AAJ: A classic.

J"T"W: Of course, one of the great, fine films. [laughs]

AAJ: I don't know why that didn't make your filmmakers' music series. Scorsese? C'mon, man.

J"T"W: I'm working up to it, I'm working up to it. [laughs] It's a vigorous scale. So I was watching it. I have a lot of instruments in my house, so I went to my upright bass and started creating a bass line and figuring out what I would do to the melody to put it into a jazzy piece. So that's the initial inspiration. It went from being some sort of "Godzilla variations" to something else. And then I was reminded of a piece on Chappelle's Show where [comedian Dave Chappelle] says, "I just back from Japan. I made a film of it. Check it out!" And it's him as a giant, black person monster terrorizing Japan or something like that. So I decided to make it Blackzilla for him, because he's really funny and insightful.

JeffAAJ: How old were you when you first met Branford?

J"T"W: I was nineteen years old when I met Branford at Berklee. We came together in a class of musicians that people who follow jazz know about. Myself, Branford, [guitarist] Kevin Eubanks, [saxophonist] Donald Harrison, [drummer] Marvin "Smitty" Smith, [saxophonist] Walter Beasley, [drummer] Billy Kilson, the drummer Tommy Campbell, the bassist Victor Bailey from Weather Report and Madonna and all these people. There seemed to be a lot of musicians trying to find out some stuff at the same time.

I met him then. We played a little, but not a whole lot. Once in while, we'd do an R&B gig and once in a while, a little jam session. But we mostly functioned in different circles while in Boston, musically. But socially, we'd hang out and be at parties and talk about music. I remember him coming by my dormitory room with a tape of his high school jazz ensemble. It was him and a New Orleans rhythm section and Wynton on trumpet at about sixteen, and Donald Harrison was also involved. I had just transferred from a classical school with a very good brass program, so I had some awareness of people having flexibility and technique on brass instruments, on the trumpet. Wynton was already very amazing technically and very fiery. That's the first time I heard Wynton. I guess the rest is history.


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