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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.

AAJ: So even as a drummer, it's not necessarily rhythm at the center. You're thinking of melodies.

JW: Yeah. Melodies and moods. I worked on some things on my instrument and I want to play and feature that stuff, but also I just want to use music to make people feel a certain way, also.

AAJ: Do you feel you captured what you wanted to capture?

JW: This record, as far as my own playing consistently throughout the record, it's coming from a lot of different places. So stylistically, there are some things I would have liked to have been more prepared to play, but I think I played the different vibes well enough for the songs to come to life. But I wish that I had more time to work on all these things individually. But then that gives me some place to go. Because all these tunes, when I play them live, I'll really find out what I want to play on them as a drummer.

AAJ: Are you touring in support of it, or playing with other groups this summer?

JW: In the proper summer festival season, I'll tend to be home. But whenever the record comes out, I'll be in Chicago and on the west coast and east coast. I'll just be trying to do all those clubs that I've done many times as a sideman. I'll be trying to go into those markets as a leader.

I've been doing a certain amount of low-key gigs with my group I various forms since my first record Citizen Tain came out. I haven't toured a lot, but there's a lot of music from both records in the band's book, and a whole lot of other music too the people haven't heard. It'll be good for me and think people will definitely dig it.

AAJ: Is it difficult being a drummer, a sideman, albeit with a lot of great players, then saying "OK, I want to be out front"? I got my own group and I want to play my own music."

JW: I guess so. It's an opportunity. On the financial end, it's going to be something different. I'm prepared for the prospect of doing sideman gigs to subsidize my leader stuff, at least at the outset. It's all an investment in myself. So it's not that bad.

AAJ: You're from Pittsburgh, where a few great drummers came from. You started playing in the fourth grade, but did you pick up sticks before that?

JW: Not at all. Never even thought about the concept of music. My parents didn't have a record player. Didn't collect music. My older brothers did collect music, mostly what was on the radio—Motown, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. Stuff like that, which is all great.

AAJ: You took it up I school

JW: Yeah. They give you general music classes for the first few years of elementary school, and then you get to a certain age and they ask people if you want to play an instrument. Off the top of my head, the thing that came to mind was to be a trumpet player, because it looked fun and cool. You could play some "legit" music on it, but you could also jam around and have fun with it. I think what happened is the instructor told me my teeth were incorrect to play the trumpet. Since then I've talked to trumpet players and they said my teeth weren't that bad. So what I suspect was, they ran out of trumpets. So I wouldn't cry, they said my teeth were completely wrong.

So I played one drum for a couple years. Did the school band thing, the orchestral thing for awhile.

AAJ: The music of the day wasn't jazz. Were you listening to jazz or other stuff?

JW: In fourth grade I just played band music. In sixth grade I got a little drum set, playing stuff that was on the radio. Growing up in Pittsburgh at hat time it was very easy for a young musician to not get a clear view of what jazz was. So on the high school level, I was still pretty much unaware of classic jazz figures, other than certain Big Band people because the Big Band thing is easily marketed to schools, because they can interest young people and interest a larger amount of young people. The stuff that was jazz based, that I would be aware of, would be if the Woody Herman band was coming to town or Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson. I met Louie Bellson once when I was 17, and he was nice. Those were the things I was aware of. I'd see Buddy Rich on the "Tonight Show."

So, I was kind of aware of straight-ahead type jazz, only in that capacity. Then when I got to be about 15 or 16, my brothers started to get me jazz fusion records, like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and things like that. I kind of back tracked from there.

AAJ: Moving on in school you stayed in Pittsburgh.

JW: Yeah. I went to Duquesne University as a classical major, played tympani on a number of things; did operas and musicals and new music and stuff like that. I started my collegiate training to be a symphonic percussionist. But then 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. So I heard about Harvey Mason, and how he studied at the New England Conservatory, and how he was capable of all these different things in a studio setting. So I started trying to be versatile. My thirst to explore jazz was pretty much out of that, out of a wanting to be versatile and sound decent in a jazz setting if anyone asked me to do that.
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