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Jeff "Tain" Watts: Moods and Melodies of a Drummer

R.J. DeLuke By

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Ultimately it's about expression. Musicians have to satisfy themselves and I'm definitely not the one to try to tell them how to solo or what the backdrops for the improvisation should be.
Jeff "Tain" Watts is a workingman's drummer. Look around and you find him everywhere. Gigging with Branford Marsalis. Yeah, he did the Wynton thing for a bunch of years. The ill-fated "Tonight Show" band when Jay Leno first took over for Johnny Carson. Look at your CDs. You'll find him. With Michael Brecker, Ravi Coltrane, Kenny Garrett and a whole lot more. He can establish a groove for anyone, as well as flat out cook.

His command of his instrument—which he is always trying to improve—is vast. It seems odd that he didn't have an immediate interest in music growing up in Pittsburgh. Elvin Jones says he knew at age 2 that he would be a drummer. Watts didn't care much about music and didn't listen too much. His parents didn't collect music.

But once exposed to it in school, he quickly acclimated to it. And as he proceeded up the ladder, he got into all kinds of music, so he'd be prepared for any job that might come up. That's dexterity. It's also smart. If there's a lot of starving musicians out there, Watts wasn't going to be one of them.

"As I started to play more drum set, I adjusted my thing. I wanted to be able to perform authentically and accurately on the classical percussion, but also plays different styles on the drum set," he says. He ended up in at Berkley School of Music and hung out with some jazz heavyweights that got him started along his strong career.

And now he's trying to develop his own music and his own group... while not giving up sideman gigs that allow him a lot of free reign. "It's very cool. I've had a great time. If I choose to, I can just play with people that I love to play with and also my good friends, which comes in handy when you're traveling. I'm very fortunate"

In the wake of Citizen Tain , Watts bursts in with his second Sony disc Bar Talk that will be released in August. It's a good one. Almost all originals featuring people like Ravi Coltrane and James Genus There's appearances by Michael Brecker and Branford and others. The compositions are solid and, even though Watts feels he could have been stronger, he knows it's OK, because he is going to continue to grow. He can't wait to take the music out on the road later this year and work it out, fine-tuning it even more.

And by the way, don't take him literally about the disc. Watts is hard on himself as an artist, always looking to get better. Bar Talk is damn good. It grooves. It cooks. "Mr. JJ," for example, steams along with help from Joey Caldorazzo's driving piano over Watts' polyrhythms. "Kiss," is a sweet melody that he pushes softly. Coltrane's soprano soars over the beat as the tune slowly catches more fire. The performances are solid throughout and there are other elements besides mainstream jazz tossed in for good measure. (No Wynton clone, he feels there's room for many things in the music called jazz).

"Composition is still pretty new to me, so I'm just trying whatever it takes," says Watts.

That's cool. He should keep it up. Bar Talk is a solid effort in a busy career and the music created here is bound to change and become even better live. Watts is just looking at musicians and learning for a time, he said, and he took some time to speak about it all.

All About Jazz (AAJ): It's sort of rare that drummers get to headline on CDs. How do you feel about the new CD and what kind of statement, if any, are you trying to make? There's a lot of originals on there.

Jeff Watts (JW): Some of the songs are very jazzy and some of the songs use jazz in addition to other elements. I don't really know what to say about it. It's just stuff I happen to write. A lot of jazz records are put together typically. There's your fast tune and your ballad There tends to be a certain type of architecture to it. But I just try to write songs that utilize improvisation, but aren't necessarily blowing things. I didn't want to have vehicles for everybody to show how much they practiced. I just wanted to have music.

AAJ: How do you compose as a drummer? Is it a little different approach when you sit down to write?

JW: Pretty typically. There's a drummer in Detroit named Lawrence Williams, who's a great composer. Some of his music is featured on albums by, like, Geri Allen and Marcus Bellgrave and people like that. One device that people from Detroit told me that he used was that he would, before even thinking melodically, he would write out a whole rhythmic idea. A whole thing that made complete musical sense, but only using rhythm. Then he would assign notes to it. That's something I tried on a couple of the tracks. Composition is still pretty new to me, so I'm just trying whatever it takes. But most of the time I have an idea and I'll sing it. And then whenever it starts to make a certain amount of sense, I'll go to the piano. And then the song will kind of unfold.

So most things I write from the piano. Some things I play a little bass lines that you can endure hearing over and over [laughter]. And then try to go somewhere with that. I've just really been messing around with it the past six years.

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