In honor of master drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ 59th birthday, I’ve updated a post that I put up a couple of years ago to include a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2015. Below that is 2002 piece for DownBeat written on the occasion of his second release, Bar Talk (the Zinc Bar, which figures prominently in the piece, was then on the north side of Houston Street). Below the Bar Talk piece is an uncut Blindfold Test that Jeff did with me in 2004.
Jeff Watts Jazziz Article (#1):
More than a decade ago, when Jeff and Laura Watts (née Kahle) started dating, Watts’ music collection was in disarray.
“Jeff didn’t have wi-fi, so he would import thousands of songs from his CDs into iTunes and not label them,” she recalled. “For weeks, we went through every song and labeled it. ‘Who is this?’ ‘James Brown.’ ‘What song is this?’ ‘This is I Got To Move.’ It was fun. I discovered so much music. Jeff didn’t care if the music randomly shuffled on his iPod. I was more like, ‘Let’s get this done.’”
Married since 2010, the Wattses sipped coffee on the front bench of the center-left pew in Studio A of the Sanctuary. It’s a 300-seat space, overlooked by two large stained glass windows portraying Old Testament and New Testament narratives, where St. Peter’s Lutheran Church of Easton, Pennsylvania, held services from about 1900 until 2007. After the church ceased operations, audio-video producer and engineer Glen Forrest bought it, removed the altar, built a stage, installed lighting, ran cables downstairs to a basement studio and to another room directly behind the stage, and outfitted the spaces with state-of-the-art microphones and sound processing equipment. Forrest soon outgrew the premises, and sold it to the couple not long after the birth of their twin daughters, now 4½. Between rush hours or after a gig, it’s a less than 90-minute drive from the two-bedroom Harlem apartment they maintain for Watts’ not-infrequent New York gigs.
A native of Pittsburgh, Watts, 55, had been a Brooklynite since 1981, when he left Berklee School of Music to join the Wynton Marsalis Quintet. He traces the notion of relocation to late 2001, when he recorded Branford Marsalis’ Footsteps of Our Fathers and his second leader date, Bar Talk, at Bearsville Studios, near Woodstock, New York. “I was accustomed to a recording process where you get all the bad Thai food you can order instantly,” he said. “It was in the woods, my cell phone stopped working—I was resisting. We stayed in cabins on the grounds, and when I woke up the next day, a deer was looking in the window. I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool.’ I wanted to get in an isolated space where I could pursue music in a cool environment, instead of doing the apartment dance, with people complaining when I practiced. And I was looking for a slightly more peaceful environment for my young family, wanting them to have a tree or two in their life.”
The Wattses cleared out the Atlantic Avenue coop that he had finished paying off in 2003. They rented a house in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, in the Poconos, thirty miles north of Easton, a town of 26,000 in the Lehigh Valley. He started looking at houses with potential studio spaces in basements or barns, then for industrial spaces to convert, then for churches. After several false starts, he found the Sanctuary on a website.
“We had to get our computer fixed, so we decided to drive to Allentown instead of New York,” Laura Watts related. “While we were waiting, Jeff said, ‘Let’s ride over to Easton.’ I was like, ‘Easton? Unnhh…’”
“I had to kind of trick her,” Watts interjected.
“The babies were sleeping, so just Jeff went in to look at it,” she continued. “When he came out he said, ‘I think it’s great.’ The whole thing happened kind of magically. My role is usually more functional, but together we’re more dreamers than practical. A practical person probably wouldn’t buy a church built in 1875. But we did inspections, all the right things to do when you’re buying a property, which led us to believe we’d be ok.”
“It was much more than I ever thought I’d need, but I felt I had to experience it and claim it in the name of music,” Watts said.
They got up to give a tour, beginning with Studio B, a gigantic living room on the other side of the sanctuary’s inner wall in which the church operated for its first quarter century or so. Behind it is a long, well-stocked playroom for the girls, which opens into a dining area the size of a Manhattan studio apartment, which Forrest had used as a greenscreen room. That opens into a large, sunlit corner kitchen, with much counter space, on which sat collard greens and tomatoes from the garden directly outside it that would be simmered in olive oil and served on quinoa for lunch.
Back in Studio A, Watts opened a door stage left, and pointed to the innards of an immense, still-functional pipe organ. Then he ambled through a clutter of instruments on the stage: a well-worn piano that Watts had transplanted from Brooklyn; a $5,000 vibraphone that he purchased for $600 during the early ’90s in Los Angeles, when he played drums in Branford Marsalis’ Tonight Show band; a plywood bass he’d received in trade for a drumset; the gold-plated Sonar drumset that he’d played on Wynton Marsalis’ 1985 album Black Codes From The Underground; and an array of percussion instruments large and small, including blue LP Patato Valdes congas that former Tonight Show percussionist Vicki Randle offered him gratis after “she got a hipper set.” More drum components filled the pews facing stage right, along with Laura Watts’ gleaming flugelhorn.
“That’s not even half of them,” she said of the drums.
“It’s two-and-a-half kits and a lot of snare drums, and a bunch more are stored,” Watts said. “We could easily fill up the room with them.”
As Laura Watts left to greet and monitor a roofer, Watts turned his attention to the Sonars. “I’ve used all these different kits, and I keep coming back to this one,” he said. “I probably first saw Jack DeJohnette playing this model around 1975. They were talked about as the Rolls-Royce of drums. I’d take them on the road with Wynton or someone like that in Europe for a month, and they’d be intact. Until this year, these are the drums I would shlog around New York, but I’m trying to let them rest and breathe and be in a cool space.
“I dig them. They feed me. They take care of my family. They bought me a church!”
Watts played those Sonars on that Studio A stage during two 2014 sessions that generated the spring release Blue (Vol. 1), and several more this year for its early 2016 followup, Blue (Vol. 2), on his imprint, Dark Key. He describes the contents, focused on blues and ballads, as “reflective of my blue period” during the decline of his mother, Marie Watts, and after her death in 2012 at the age of 90. The repertoire on Volume One is performed by four different units, assembled from a cohort of collaborators past and present, among them tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, harmonicist Gregoire Maret, guitarists Paul Bollenback and Mark Whitfield, pianists David Budway, Osmany Paredes, Manuel Valera and Jamies Francies; and bassists Christian McBride, Orlando LeFleming, Neal Caine and Chris Smith. Several of them bunked in the upstairs bedrooms during the process.
Watts compared these new offerings to such earlier releases as Citizen Tain, his 1998 leader debut, and its follow-up, Bar Talk, on which—joined by such high-Q-score employers as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker and Kenny Garrett—he morphed himself from celebrity sideman into leader with a vision. “Maybe I was subconsciously catering to my audience from the first decades of my career,” Watts self-evaluated. “Now I’m just trying to be creative, and make records that people like to listen to as opposed to being amazed by something.”
Actually, Watts generates a sizable percentage of wow-factor playing throughout both Blue dates, within environments that artfully showcase the skills and conceptual scope that made him perhaps the most influential hardcore jazz drummer of his generation. On the technical tip, his most notable contribution to drum language is to have found ways to codify the equations of metric modulation—or, as Marcus Roberts put it, “to play two meters against each other to create a unique rhythmic syncopation”—into a consistent, improvisationally cogent style. Watts himself cites albums like Marsalis’ Live at Blues Alley and Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1, Gary Thomas’ Seventh Quadrant and Geri Allen’s The Nurturer as “radical” examples of this “pure polyrhythm” concept.
The present-day iteration of the aforementioned comes through on the Blue (Vol. 1) set-opener, a hip-hop-flavored “derangement” of Thelonious Monk’s 1956 composition “Brilliant Corners,” on which Watts reconfigures Max Roach’s rhythmic designs on the original iteration, merrily accelerating and decelerating the tempo, shifting gears from well-thwacked drum-bass beats to funky swing. On another Roach tribute, “Driva Man,” arranged for a 2011 Black History Month event in Detroit, when Watts served as Artist-in-Residence for the Detroit Jazz Festival, he elongates the 5-beat motif from the original 1960 recording, navigating the structure with timbral nuance and rhythmic churn that impart a laid-back, ominous feel. “Blues For Mr. Charley”—which signifies on James Baldwin’s iconic tome but also shouts out to the recently bereaved drummer Charley Drayton—opens with a rubato field holler before morphing into a rolling Coltranean sermon that shape-shifts between rolling Elvin Jones beats, Afro-Caribbean clave, and a declarative anthemic shuffle. “Flip and Dip” is an Ornette Coleman meets Pat Metheny freebop line built on a long series of exchanges between Roberts and Maret, commented upon by Watts’ resonant, swinging beats, drawn from his close study of Coleman drummers Edward Blackwell and Billy Higgins.
“Tain is a master of form, with perfect pitch and tremendous reflexes,” Wynton Marsalis told me when Bar Talk came out, referring to Watts by his frequent sobriquet. “Over the years, he developed a vocabulary that only he plays. All those pieces we did in the quintet with time changes and superimposed meters came from playing with him. He forced me to shape my lines that way.”
At the time, drummer Jason Marsalis called Watts “the next in line in the jazz lineage after drummers like Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden; he combined that vocabulary with the vocabulary of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, which makes him innovative.” Himself no trifling drummer, Brecker told me: “I stand next to him every night, transfixed, and hope some of what he plays will sink in. Sometimes I think I understand it. But when I sit down at the drums, I can’t do it.”
“Over the years I’ve developed into being many people’s conduit for getting into this music,” Watts remarked in the dining room after lunch. “Due to the high level of exposure I’ve had in these different media, I might be one of the first jazz drummers many people see. It puts a certain responsibility on me.”
Many people discovered Watts in bands with Branford Marsalis until the late summer of 2009, when “a business dispute with Branford’s management” precipitated a parting of ways after three decades of continuous employ and brotherly friendship. “Branford always tried to include me in anything he was involved in, and to share his musical opportunities,” Watts added. “But he moved on and I moved on. I’ll always be connected to him. I’ll do some projects that will involve him, and he’ll involve me in things he does.
“Branford and I developed our styles together. My jazz vocabulary was small when we met at Berklee, so he would try to predict what I was going to play and play along with it. I’d try to trick him. That made me get into the thing I still kind of do—displacing things, taking big chunks of melody and putting them in funny places, initiating them and terminating them in funny places, taking a familiar object and putting it up here so it’s instantly abstract. That’s one thing that gave us our sound.”
Ensconced in a dwelling where he can practice at top volume at any time of the day or night, Watts is pursuing a sound that maintains equipoise between form and function, an approach that tests the waters while retaining maximum groove. “More and more, I’m able to look at stuff as a means to an end,” he said. “I’m going more for whatever it takes to make the music vibrate and resonate with an African sensibility that’s related to life and communication. I spent a certain amount of my career trying to find things to add to the swing vocabulary, and then, through Elvin Jones and Ed Blackwell and people like that, I started to see the specific ties to Africa specifically.”
A week before our conversation, Watts explored those ties during a week at the Blue Note with Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, whose members spent a full day rehearsing at the Sanctuary before the event. He’s also taken pains to associate with some best-and-brightests of the Cuban jazz musicians who migrated to New York during the years since he recorded Citizen Tain, Among them are Paredes and saxophonist (and Watts alumnus) Yosvany Terry, who made a seafood gumbo for Thanksgiving dinner at the Sanctuary in 2013.
“There were eight people in the kitchen, but it’s so big that it wasn’t a drag,” Watts said. “Everybody was doing their dish and prep. We always have a healthy exchange. One reason these guys come to America is to interface with people who represented something to them. I jump back and forth between trying to glean whatever folkloric information I can from them, and giving them as much pure jazz language as I can. It works out for both sides.”
Sidebar (Six Drum Influences):
In a conversation in 2002, Jeff Watts described himself as less apt to deconstruct his major influences stroke-for-stroke than to create something that outlines their essence. “I’ve operated within the tradition but also independently of it,” he said then. “I’ve gravitated to drummers who aren’t out of any specific bag, but just swing and make commentary. This freed me up.” This having been said, it seemed an interesting idea in 2015 to ask Watts to choose and discuss six drum influences.
“The drumset is an American invention. In its multiple percussion configuration, it’s also a relatively new instrument in relation to other instruments, which in jazz and American music were adapted from European traditions. You can trace the roots of the instrument to a whole bunch of folky places, but you owe it to yourself to refer to repertoire. Influence becomes important.
“I’ll start with Elvin Jones. My favorite drummers are usually super-duper expressive and personal, but at the same time perform their function at a super-high level. Elvin can play disjunct, independent things, but make the band feel wonderful.
“I’m sure when the instrument was first put together, there was a certain amount of haterism or denigration of the drumset’s legitimacy as a true instrument. People like Max Roach and others pushed it to the front. But both on a purely technical level and on an expressive level, Tony Williams made the drumset’s validity undeniable. Tony wrote the textbook of how to achieve a personal style by really internalizing precedent and the tradition.
“I’ll mention two people that are so nasty they probably could have played with anybody. Roy Haynes did play with everybody. Like Elvin, he absorbed tradition and was able to navigate the Afro-Cuban vibration, which gave him a very broad palette to work from. A lot of music is about musical decisions. He made musical decisions that enabled him to interface with a wide variety of artists representing the whole history of the music. I always come back to a drum solo he did on “Tired Trade,” from Black Fire with Andrew Hill.
“Papa Jo Jones also played with a lot of people, not that much in the modern era, but he was such a virtuoso and such a well-deserved egomaniac that he would have made sure that he could play with anybody. He gets my all-around trophy, because he’s just so BAD, sonically, beat-wise, his brushes—the drums work their way to him.
“Fifth is Changuito. Even though a lot more vocabulary has been transferred from Africa onto the drumset over the years, he still hasn’t been surpassed. The same thing that I said about Elvin applies to him: maximum funk with maximum creativity.
“Sixth, Bernard Purdie, just for universal grooveitude. Drummers have a lot of responsibility in general, and he’s the definition of taking care of business. Go in there cold and nail it, or maybe everybody has horrible time, and the drummer has to take responsibility for gangstering the situation and taking control of the thing.”
Jeff Watts (DownBeat):
When he isn’t on the road with Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker or his own increasingly busy group, Jeff “Tain” Watts often plays in the cramped environs of Manhattan’s Zinc Bar, a low-ceilinged shotgun basement on the north edge of Soho where an international mix of New York’s finest workshop various projects. In the front section, patrons and waitresses vie for elbow room in a narrow aisle between a well-stocked bar and a long line of dime-sized banquette tables. The tables run past a 10’-by-5’ performance area between the waitress station and a sheetrock wall that conceals a pair of dimly lit restrooms. No matter how esoteric the material, the bands never stray too far from a groove of one diasporic origin or another, the better to keep the party going. Watts knows how to play the room and push the envelope as well as anyone.
The Zinc Bar’s skronky-cosmopolitan ambiance figures prominently in Bar Talk (Columbia), Watts’ 2002 release. Consider the CD’s cover photo. Shot in tones of boudoir red, Watts, in a leather jacket, perches over a drink, perhaps anticipating a round of conversation with Jean-Claude Rakotoniaina, a Madagascarian charmer and bon vivant who until recently mixed and poured $10 mojitos, caporinhas and martinis to a varied clientele. Watts signifies their profound banter—“He’d say, ‘Tain, you are the man’; I’d be like, ‘No, J.C., you know you’re the man!’”—on “JC Is The Man,” a singable five-note hook propelled by the drummer’s urgent, insouciant beat.
“Vodville,” which follows, celebrates another archetype of bar culture. Dedicated to the principle “in vodka, veritas,” it opens with onomatopoeic variations on “Giant Steps” by Branford Marsalis. This, Watts explains, “symbolizes the early stages of drunkenness, when guys suddenly are enlightened and aware of deep things.” There follows an abstract minor blues form where, “the conversation becomes more base; the time starts to slip around; the tempo speeds up; then the drunkard tries to make his way home, perhaps in denial about his drunkenness. In the third part the guy’s at home, drunk again, trying to cop a plea and pledging not to do this any more. Of course, the cycle starts all over again.”
For the remainder of Bar Talk, Watts eschews further exploration of the nuances of lush life. But he frames himself with an assortment of environments—a Brazil-inflected paean to Stevie Wonder; a tenor burnout by his two primary sources of income; a nasty blues; two harmonically luxuriant ballads; a post-bop evocation of Billy Higgins; even a contemporary-styled tune with a torchy lyric—that artfully convey the range of skills, predispositions and stylistic idiosyncracies that make Watts perhaps the most influential hardcore jazz drummer of his generation. He’s a storyteller, adept at extracting melodic motifs from challenging harmony and weaving his signature metric shifts and superimpositions organically into the form. He’s a drum virtuoso who plays with volcanic flash, but also intuitive taste, and he sustains a constant dialogue with bandmates Ravi Coltrane, David Budway and Paul Bollenbeck. On the heels of his 2000 leader debut, Citizen Tain, Bar Talk documents how deftly Watts, 42, has morphed himself from flow-shaping celebrity sideman to leader with an inclusive vision.
“I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing in general!” Watts exclaims with a raucous laugh from his spacious Brooklyn apartment. A video of the Miles Davis Quintet, circa 1967, flickers on the television. “I want to be able to interface with almost any type of musician. Stretch jazz vocabulary abstractly, but keep elements that are heartfelt and centered—music anyone can understand—and always keep what’s raw. I want to deal with the whole world rhythmically. As drummers, our prime function is rhythm. So we should know as many as we can.
“I’ve questioned my rationale for writing music or addressing stuff on the instrument that isn’t straightahead jazz,” he continues. “It took me a long time to resolve this. Maybe because I felt for so long like I was in the trenches trying to save the world with jazz, there’s an unspoken guilt about loving a simple song with three chords, or one groove and two fills. But when you analyze things in fusion or things Miles Davis did that people find questionable, often it comes down to a different base rhythm. But if there’s a dance and invention and interaction and a group sound and a certain level of quality, then the jazz thing is still there.”
Perhaps Watts retains a fresh attitude to jazz became he discovered it so late. Immersed in funk, r&b and fusion as a Pittsburgh teenager, he matriculated at Duquesne University as a classical percussion student, anticipating a future in the studios. Then he met Steel City trapset giant Roger Humphries, transitioned from a devotee of Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and George Duke into, as he puts it, “a jazz head,” and transferred to Berklee College of Music. There, Watts encountered a cast of talented, ambitious peer-groupers—including Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Wallace Roney, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Cindy Blackman and Gene Jackson—eager to investigate the future upon a solid bedrock of tradition. In the fall of 1981, Marsalis, aware that his trumpet-playing younger brother was looking for a drummer to play a few gigs, recommended his friend.
“I always felt that Tain was the guy,” Branford says. “I liked how he constructed his comping behind soloists at jam sessions. As opposed to being a complete, thorough historian of the music and playing all the right things at the right time, he played strange things at the right time, imposing his fusion influences on a jazz context. I appreciated that and thought it would be great for Wynton’s band.”
“My brother liked Tain,” Wynton Marsalis recalls. “There were no auditions. Kenny Kirkland had an apartment, and we started rehearsing. At that time, they knew about jazz and kind of liked it, but they were mainly into fusion. I was into jazz. I liked Tain because he was funny, but he has a phenomenal level of talent and intellect. He’s a master of form, with perfect pitch and tremendous reflexes. Over the years, he developed a vocabulary that only he plays. All those pieces with time changes and different meters came from playing off of him, because he could do it. It forced me to shape my lines that way, too.”
“When Wynton started his thing, we stepped up the learning game,” Branford says. “Tain talked to Tony Williams and hung out with Art Blakey. He hooked his stuff up. When we first got to New York, he didn’t know how to play four-on-the-floor. His cymbal sound was OK, kind of splashy. He would hit the cymbal for hours, getting that together. Then he spent time learning Max’s stuff, then Art Blakey’s, one person by one person. The more you do that, the more sophisticated your language becomes, so eventually you can play almost anything. But on top of that, he was doing it his own way.”
Watts describes himself as less apt to break down his major influences stroke-for-stroke than to create something that outlines their essence. “Perhaps I’ve helped people to operate within the tradition but also independently of the tradition,” he notes. “Early study in jazz drumming tends to focus on bebop because it was so codified. Each guy had a signature vocabulary—a certain set of licks—that you can use to try to create the illusion of being melodic over a form. You can get hung up on someone like Philly Joe Jones, and it dictates how you approach a tune. I gravitated to drummers like James Black, Ben Riley, Frankie Dunlop and Papa Jo Jones, who aren’t out of any specific bag, but just swing and make commentary. This freed me up. Wynton pretty much specifically asked me to find things that Tony Williams didn’t play. We used that music and got ideas from it, but it was important to work on a voice.”
That voice has inspired two generations of esthetic descendants as a gateway into jazz lineage. Watts combined the vocabulary of Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden with the vocabulary of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. He found ways to codify the equations of metric modulation, or pure polyrhythm (Vinnie Colaiuta defines this as “playing an alienated group of notes evenly dispersed throughout a given number of beats”), into a consistent improvisational style. “During my second year at Berklee, I skimmed Gary Chaffee’s books and figured every polyrhythm that I would need,” Watts says. “Once again, rather than learning all the specifics, I made my own decisions. That informed the more linear style of my earlier playing with Wynton.
He sings a rhythm with an abstracted second-line feel to demonstrate his point. “Kenny Kirkland would comp that a lot in Wynton’s band to give things a disjunct feeling. People call it playing five, but it isn’t. It’s playing eighth notes grouped in five; it goes over the bars, resolves in a different place, and makes the music flow differently. By 1984, I wanted to do some things that transcended jazz vocabulary, and I started to experiment, play a pure five beats or seven beats over four beats or three beats. To this day, a few recordings are really radical on that end, like Live At Blues Alley and parts of Marsalis Standard Time, Vol.1, as well as Gary Thomas’ first record and Geri Allen’s The Nurturer. It’s like a 20th century classical music device, and it’s evolved and become more complex. People aren’t afraid now to use pure polyrhythm for the ensemble or for soloing.”
Still, the fact that Watts became a household name among jazz cognoscenti during the first decade of his career had less to do with what he played than with whom he played it. He remained with Wynton Marsalis until 1987, went on the road with George Benson and McCoy Tyner, rejoined forces with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland after their sojourn with Sting, and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1992 for what became a three-year stint on Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show.” Out of the fray, Watts began to compose, figuring out ways to translate his take on modern trapset vocabulary into the compelling narrative he presents on Bar Talk.
“I had fun for maybe the first year-and-a-half—and then it became a job,” Watts relates. “I was in purgatory. But looking back, it was almost like a paid sabbatical. Wynton was always encouraging me. He said, ‘Write it, and if it’s halfway done, we’ll play it and make it right.’ But I didn’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge, and I was shy about composition for a long time. If I’d stayed in New York I might not have had the time to open myself up and pursue it. Being denied a lot of playing opportunities and access to a pool of musicians made me focus on other routes. And living next door to Kenny Kirkland was not a bad impetus.”
“Kenny and Jeff would work from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., then they could leave and do whatever the hell they wanted,” Branford says. “They were always in one another’s houses. Kenny had the Mac set up with the software, Tain would go in, and they would just write tunes, work on things, and play gigs from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., maybe get a full eight hours sleep, and still wake up in time to get to work.”
During the ’80s, Watts had supplemented polyrhythmic explorations with tutorials in Afro-Cuban music from Kirkland; these led to marathon master class listening sessions and occasional gigs with Jerry and Andy Gonzales. He continued his homework in L.A.’s dynamic Latin community. “I sat down with people, got some specifics and actually implemented the vocabulary,” Watts says. “Playing Latin music is a bridge to an African sensibility. It helps you get away from bar lines and conventional phrases; you feel a basic heartbeat, but then you cut it up. You have the freedom to create from nothing—a personal world of music with just the drums.”
Watts resettled in New York in 1995, well-prepared to tackle the Pan-American rhythmic mix of Danilo Perez, with whom he played and recorded for two years. “Tain had done enough homework where now it was just a matter of execution,” Branford says. “He was able to apply what he had already peeped and find out if things worked or not. Danilo was smart enough to hear that Tain would bring more of a jazz dynamic than most Afro-Cuban drummers.”
“People will always emphasize authenticity,” Watts says. “But some Latin and quasi-ethnic folk call me because they also want something that doesn’t sound like what they’ll get from somebody from their country. Now I’m not afraid to add some American stuff or things I make up. People are taking chances compositionally, and you want to make it sound real within the first 10 minutes, to let them know they’re on the right track.”
Watts put some Tainian mojo on a recent no-rehearsal hit at the Zinc Bar with an Afro-Jazz sextet led by Nigerian-American bassist and Jazz Messenger alumnus Essiet Essiet. He propelled the band with four-limbed variations on a set of vernacular juju rhythms that Essiet had shown him a few years earlier, ratcheting the intensity, conjuring from the trapset a sound not unlike that of the talking drum choir with King Sunny Ade and his African Beats.
His playing recalled a comment by Brecker, Watts’ frequent employer since 1997 and himself an avid drummer. “Tain has come up with a new language on the drums,” Brecker says. “When I’m not playing, I stand next to him every night, transfixed, and hope some of it will sink in. Sometimes I think I understand it, then when I sit down at the drums, I can’t do it.”
On “Like A Rose,” the final track of Bar Talk, Brecker constructs an ingenious variation on a stutter-step rhythmic modulation that occurs after the bridge, a construction inspired by Meshuggah, a Swedish heavy metal band Watts admires. The leader brings forth his soulful alter ego, Juan Tainish, to sing an affecting lyric reflecting the side of Watts “that’s almost corny, that loves unapologetically sweet things, like Stevie Wonder and Elton John ballads.” He wrote it on the road last year after a nostalgic conversation with Sting – appropriately, at the bar – at the Central Park after-concert party during Sting’s Desert Rain tour.
Watts and Sting go back to Sting’s ‘80s quasi-jazz period with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, when Watts unsuccessfully auditioned for the band. “In those years, when I was immersed in jazz, I listened to a lot of things, but kept a mental log rather than actually address stuff I’d want to incorporate into a contemporary style down the road,” he says. “Branford had been telling me about the audition for months. But I was a wild and crazy guy, and as the months went by I was just in the street doing my thing and doing my jazz gigs. The night before, I went to Branford’s house, grabbed four Police records, put them on cassette, went to the rehearsal the next day and jammed with Sting, Darryl Jones and Branford. To make that transition at that point of my life, I would have had to spend some time.”
Fifteen years later, Watts remarks: “I want to practice a lot, and see what happens if I’m studious and conscientious. I might as well find out before I’m 50. Most of what I’ve done has been through musicianship as opposed to technique. I want to change my approach and get better purely in a drumming way; instrumentally, I want to refine everything and not be limited by lack of preparation.”
Well aware of what he’s accomplished, Watts anticipates his next phase. “Dave Holland said in Down Beat a few years ago that he writes tunes, records them and plays them on the road to find out what he can do on them. He uses that knowledge to determine what he writes later. I look forward to being in that artistic cycle. I get a percentage of it from my very close sideman associations, because I usually end up shaping the rhythm. But being able to write stuff, get it recorded and play it with people you choose—having control entirely over your musical world—is a cool thing.”
Jeff Watts Blindfold Test (2004):
1. Chucho Valdes, “Sin Clave Para Con Swing” (from NEW CONCEPTION, Blue Note, 2002) (Valdes, piano, composer; Yaroldy Abreu Robles, congas; Lazaro Rivero Alarcón, bass; Ramses Rodriguez Baralt, trap drums) – (2-1/2 stars)
That’s like some quasi-progressive, Latin-based… I guess a lot of stuff that I began to become aware of maybe in the early ‘90s, people utilizing odd time signatures but still retaining clave structure. It comes into some of my writing, some arrangements I do, and of course, on “The Impaler.” It’s stuff I got from talking with various, mostly Cuban musicians, and also stuff that Danilo Perez started to experiment with, maybe in conjunction with but maybe as a reaction to stuff that was going on in Cuba. It’s a logical progression. If you have Latin jazz musicians listening to early jazz… It’s mostly a combination of fusion and what happened with jazz in New York in the ‘80s, stuff that we were experimenting with in Wynton’s group, and also Steve take on permutations of structure and time. So it’s a natural progression with Latin jazz musicians to try to use this to get to something else or whatever. Sometimes it really works and it feels natural; sometimes it can be kind of gimmicky. But I think that the end result of this experimentation will be down the road, probably in the next five or ten years.
But this particular one? It was cool. There’s kind of a problem that exists with…well, even in a lot of jazz tunes. Not enough of the material that’s used for the exposition is actually improvised on. And it’s cool. It’s not etched in stone. Something can be an introduction to something, to take you into a vibe, and then cats can solo on whatever material they choose. I kind of prefer when it actually uses some of the material that’s in the exposition. But it’s fine. I really don’t know who it is, though. Pianistically, it didn’t sound strong enough to be someone like Chucho, but then again, it could be. And I’m not familiar enough with his writing to say that it’s him. It’s definitely not Danilo. It didn’t strike me as being someone like Ed Simon or even Luis Perdomo. Those are the obvious culprits that come to mind. I’m not really sure who it is. It was just coming from a whole lot of places. Then there’s the little swinging kind of section on one chord that comes in, and it’s just kind of there… I’d be interested to know if this is part of a suite or if it’s just a straight-out composition.
The drums were fine. It’s not someone like El Negro, and I don’t think it’s Robbie Ameen, and I’m very sure that it’s not Dafnis. There’s like a couple of different schools of this type of drumming that are around. Those guys I just mentioned, even though they have very different styles, were they want the drumset to come from is more folkloric, as opposed to… From the sound and instrument choices, this feels like someone reinterpreting, for an example, I’ll say Dave Weckl’s contribution to that style or whatever. It’s more of a fusiony style, more somehow American-sounding than folkloric sounding, just from the choices of drums and cymbals and the way that they played. Do I have to give this stars? [LAUGHS] Unfortunately, 2 stars compositionally and 3 for the performance. So 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] It was Chucho?!!? Sorry, bro. It’s from his last record ? I’ll pick it up. I know there’s some stuff on there somewhere.
2. Donald Harrison, “Heroes” (from HEROES, Nagel-Heyer, 2004) (Harrison, as, comp.; Ron Carter, b; Billy Cobham, d) (2-1/2 stars)
Kind of a little poem. The alto was the antithesis of a Kenny Garrett or someone like that. It’s kind of a folky and open vocal sound kind of thing. The approach reminds me of Miguel Zenon or someone like Myron Walden, but I don’t really think it’s either of them, and I can’t venture a guess on who it is. The drums? There’s more than a handful of guys now who are coming out of a Jack DeJohnette type of thing or whatever. When I hear that sound, I kind of grade it on a different scale. I look at it creatively as opposed to looking for a serious swinging thing. And I can safely say that this was not swinging at all, so I have to throw that out immediately. But it’s cool. Because a lot of stuff that I really, really enjoy by Keith Jarrett is not swinging in the traditional sense. So it doesn’t necessarily not mean a thing! Imagine playing that for Lou Donaldson!!! But anyway, it’s cool. It’s not my flavor. I probably would have played it like a little groovier or put some kind of thing on it. It kind of floats around, and then it starts walking. It never gets to a real THING, which is cool. It could be something from Europe that I haven’t heard, from the ‘70s or something like that, or it could be something from almost anywhere now that I haven’t heard. But it’s loose and open, and sound-wise and melody-wise it felt like it was trying to come from a folky kind of place—an earthy place. But whenever it was time for the drums to do something besides kind of swing, like to actually play some stuff, it felt like he was just trying to see what he could fit into that space as opposed to trying to speak or groove or whatever. But it’s cool. Should I try to be generous? I should be honest. 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, Billy!!! No!!! No!!!! I didn’t say anything bad about Ron Carter. Donald Harrison? Are you serious? I’m glad you didn’t tell me before, because it would have influenced me, because I would have been merciful to Billy in some capacity. That just wasn’t it, man. And everybody knows he can do it. If he keeps doing this for a couple of years, it will be a whole nother thing. I love him so much. He’s so important to me, man. I can’t kiss his ass enough. But damn, Bill! He’s trying to do his thing, man. It’s cool.
3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, No. 2” (from TALKING AND DRUM SOLOS, Atavistic Unheard Music Series, 1946/2003) (Baby Dodds, solo drums) (3-1/2 stars)
Nice press roll. Felt pretty good. The character of it sounds like some early jazz stuff. My first thought was of somebody like a Baby Dodds vibe. I don’t think it’s Big Sid. Chick Webb came to mind, but it didn’t seem virtuosic enough for him. He feels a little more aggressive than that. It sounds like an older drummer, but something about the kit sounded like it was maybe something later in their career, because it sounded like there were at least three tom-toms. That’s about it. It was cute. It could easily be somebody I love, but it sounds like it’s later in their career or something like that. Or it could be Cyrille or someone like that, who is more associated with the avant-garde, kind of messing around with an older style. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, my first thought. Get down, Tainish!! Go ahead!! What year is it? So it’s late in his career. I’m BAD, man!!
4. Stefon Harris, “Red-Bone, Netti-Bone” (from EVOLUTION, Blue Note, 2004) (Harris, vibraphone; Marc Cary, keyboard; Casey Benjamin, as; Anne Drummond, fl.; Darryl Hall, bass; Terreon Gully, d; Pedro Martinez, percussion) (3 stars)
Lovely. Oh, yes, indeed, a very fine selection. I’m not really sure who it is. The Rhodes kind of puts it in a time space, but then as I listened to the drum sound, with the thicker hi-hats and higher snare, it put it later—like at least late ‘80s to today. The presence of the mallet instrument, the vibes or marimba or whatever, put me in mind of the Caribbean Jazz Project, but it doesn’t have to be that. At first the alto put me…it didn’t put me anywhere. It sounded like a few guys. But when he went to the altisimmo, then it put me in mind of Paquito, obviously. The tune is cool. It’s kind of good for summer festival listening, have a couple of rum drinks and walk around and look at some bikinis and stuff like that. It serves its function. The tune is cool. It’s fine. It’s not trying to be ground-breaking. It’s just an excuse to have a good time. The arrangement was cool. It was pretty much all in clave. And I have no idea who it is. There’s a lot of other Latin Jazz I would purchase first, but it’s fine. But maybe it’s the drummer’s thing. Then I would look at it differently. It’s not? Well, it could be Mark Walker or someone like that. That’s who I thought of. [You thought it was a Latin band.] Didn’t have to be. They had a couple of breaks that… I mean, I know them, so they can’t be that deeply folkloric! But it’s cool. A very hefty 3 stars. [AFTER] That’s Blackout? Really? Well, with those guys, that’s not bad. I’m sure there’s some funky stuff on the record and other stuff. Pedro Martinez sounded good, and for that to be Terreon, that’s really cool. He just called me right before you came. He’s up the street having some soul food. It was well done, and over the scope of the whole record and what Stefon is trying to do, it’s fine. Terreon took a lesson from me when he was in high school, and his attitude was really cool. He’s staying really open, and he functions pretty decently in a number of contexts. I guess his real strength right now is he can really play some up-to-the-minute hip-hop and funk and stuff like that. He checks out what people program, and also a lot of R&B, so he’s up on some Timbaland and stuff like that, trying to get that effect and those sounds on the drums. So this level of Latin drumming from him, that’s pretty good.
5. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b; Lewis Nash, d) (3 stars)
That was cool. I’m a lot more liberal than in the past. Everybody has to do what they have to do to get to what they’re tryin’a do! Piano trio. Tasty. People that can all play. It was tight. I don’t know what to think about it. There’s something about that that’s cool. It was trying to have that standard of whatever it is that the piano trio has, that sound or whatever. It’s almost like it was trying to break through its traditional gloss and be a little bit modern at the same time. It didn’t really work like that, but I could feel it kind of trying to break out of those confines. Cool tune. Snappy. Peppy. I have no idea who the pianist is. But he sounded good. The bass player sounded good. The drummer’s like a younger person, but somebody that’s heard Philly Joe, knows about that, and has good hands. For some reason, I don’t think… It’s not Lewis Nash. Greg Hutchinson came immediately to mind for some reason. He came to mind, and with some of the stuff that was happening on the cymbals, I thought about Winard Harper, and at the beginning, before I heard the sound of the cymbals and the cymbal beat, I thought of Billy Drummond for just a second, but I don’t think it’s him. I dug the solo more than the actual stuff in the rhythm section. They were playing beboppy things, but once in a while, some of the independence would indicate someone has heard some stuff that’s more modern. But then at the same time, it had a skippy kind of cymbal beat, swinging, but it’s not completely laying it down at that tempo. But I’m sure it’s somebody I really like. I’m stuck in that 3 star zone. It’s cool. [AFTER] Wow! Nash. Okay. I guess I haven’t listened to Lewis in a long time. I thought it was him, but then I felt like it wasn’t. I knew it was somebody who good, though, professional and cool. There’s kind of a bouncy thing that drummers play whenever the tempo gets reasonably fast, and the challenge of it is to have… Even though you’re skipping in between the primary notes, the challenge is to have that quarter note really laying with the bass and stuff like that. And it didn’t seem like it was quite doing that. The grace notes were bounced out as opposed to being articulated. It makes you have to lean on the bass a little bit. I just didn’t associate that with Lewis. Well done. That makes me see the tune in a different way. It’s a good blowing tune, but the melody is actually almost like some funk or something like that. I guess you could put it in the hardbop zone.
6. James P. Johnson, “Victory Stride” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (James P. Johnson, p., comp; Ben Webster, ts; Vic Dickenson, tb; Sidney deParis, tp; John Simmons, b; Sid Catlett, d) (5 stars)
Early ‘50s? I don’t know what it is! The tenor player could be Coleman Hawkins. But I have glaring holes in my knowledge of early jazz. The drummer was great. He’s easily one of the great ones, whoever he is. When this vibe is on… Papa Jo comes to mind, even though a lot of the stuff I have him in, he’s already moved on to the ride cymbal as opposed to the hi-hat, so I don’t have enough examples of him wearing that thing out. But the touch and the wit reminded me of him. It could be some old guy from New Orleans that I haven’t really checked out. But it felt like that. The tune is fine. Just some real swingin’, swingin’ stuff, man. The cats are completely in control. The tune is cool. It could be a riff written on another tune. But that’s what it’s about. That shit was swingin’. I’m sure some people had fun dancing to it, too. The level is pretty obvious. I don’t want to be like because this is some old, bad shit, I’m going to give it 5 stars, but I know it’s on a certain level, so I’m just going to do it. [AFTER] That’s Big Sid?!! Damn. Well, I said somebody from New Orleans. He’s from Chicago!? Well, you got me. It’s somebody bad. Somebody playing the drums. Big Sid. Ben Webster!? Oh, man, I’m all jacked up. I’m all messed up. I have a good record with these things. I don’t like this. It’s fair game, though. The only recording I have with Big Sid is Pops’ Symphony Hall. I guess I’ve heard too much of Ben Webster playing ballads and not enough of him just all-out swinging. You got me. It’s cool.
7. Andrew Cyrille, “AM 2-1/2” (from C/D/E/, Jazz Magnet, 2001) (Cyrille, d; Marty Ehrlich, as; Mark Dresser, b) (3-1/2 stars)
Ah, tricky-tricky! I thought it was good! I thought that was kind of cool. Everybody sounded good, I thought. The obvious thing when you hear an alto and the piano isn’t there, you think of an Ornette vibe. But it had that vibe, in a more tonal kind of way. I liked everybody on there, and I thought the song was cool. It feels like it comes out of the Ornette kind of conception, but it’s more contemporary. But it had that sound. I liked the drummer. He was tasty and light and cool. He was playing some simple stuff that was cool. It reminded me of Higgins, in a way. It almost sounded like it could be him, but later. But something tells me it’s not. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 is not terrible, right? It was pretty good. A nice 3-1/2. [AFTER] Really? Wow, that’s cool. They had a nice vibe on it. The composition was cool. It was cool.
8. Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez & Robby Ameen, “The Moon Shows Red” (from EL NEGRO AND ROBBY AT THE THIRD WORLD WAR, American Clave, 2002) (Ameen & Hernandez, drums; Jerry Gonzalez, tp; Takuma Watanabe, arrangement, string direction; Hiroyuki Kolke String Quartet) (4 stars)
That was kind of fresh. The rhythm was interesting. Sounds like two drumsets playing together. The strings were kind of hip. It had an experimental quality to it. It would actually be nice in a film. I don’t know what kind of scene. But there’s a lot of activity. It’s pretty obviously Jerry Gonzalez! [LAUGHS] My teacher, who I love so much. It’s great. It’s finding more vehicles for expession, and it’s cool. Of course, he’s a master conguero and bandleader. But he has a distinctive trumpet tone and style. I’m not sure if this is his record or not, though. I haven’t heard how deep he’s gotten with his flamenco thing. But they were trying to do something. I liked it. There was a lot of stuff going on, but it wasn’t random, and it had a vibe. The two drumsets give it a looseness but also a steadines. I’ll give it 4 stars. [AFTER] Is it like “Deep Rumba”? Oh, it’s their record. I like those things Kip Hanrahan does with Robbie and Negro. I have a few of those “Deep Rumba” things. Nice piece of music.
9. Fly, “Child’s Play” (from FLY, Savoy, 2004) (Jeff Ballard, d; comp; Mark Turner, ts; Larry Grenadier, b) (4 stars)
Wow. That was very cool. Some more tasty, Latin-based music. He had a lot of stuff going on. I don’t know what to think about that. At the beginning, the horn had an alto type of flavor, but then as the solo went on, it sounded more like a tenor, and just the way he was playing reminded me, for some reason, of Joe Lovano, but I don’t think it was him. Somehow it could be David or someone like that. It sounds like this branch of that music. The drummer definitely reminded me of Antonio Sanchez, for some reason, in the choices that he makes. For that music, these days, he’s kind of like the Tony Williams of that school. He tends to play drums a bit more open-sounding, cymbals that are less dry, and he tries to control their attack with the stick pressure. I liked the stuff at the beginning, with the kalimba and things like that for texture. It was a really good performance, so 4 stars. [AFTER] Really! Wow, that’s Ballard! There you go. They made some music, it’s cool.
10. Marcus Roberts, “Cole After Midnight” (from COLE AFTER MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, p; Thaddeus Exposé, b; Jason Marsalis, Leon Anderson, d) (3-1/2 stars)
Stumped once more. Not a clue. But it’s one of those things that’s in two places at the same time. The sound in most of the playing feels like an older guy, who’s pretty proficient on the piano, but the structure of it is kind of different from a time standpoint. It’s like they’respending 12 beats on each chord, which gives it a different feeling. It still has a nice feel to it. The drummer for the most part is functioning like a percussionist, just giving it little accents. He doesn’t really lay down very much functional time until right before the end. But it sounds like some kind of early experimental group. Sounds like early ‘60s, in a way. They were trying to mess around with some stuff. It’s an older vibe with a little twist on it. I enjoyed it. 3-1/2 stars. Who the hell is that?
11. Ramón Vallé, “Kimbara pá Ñico” (from NO ESCAPE, ACT, 2003) (Valle, p., comp; Omar Rodriguez-Calvo, b; Liber Torriente, d) (3-1/2 stars)
It’s a Latin fiesta here. The writing is kind of modern and cool. The playing is loose. It’s in clave, but it’s kind of loose, like a jazz kind of texture on it. Some of what the piano player is playing reminds me of Danilo, but for some reason I don’t feel it’s him. But the architecture of his solo reminds me of him. I don’t know who anybody is. But I liked it, and I’ll give it my hefty 3-1/2 star rating. [AFTER] More of them damn Cubans! He sounds like he’s listened to Danilo. Sounds like he checked him out, definitely.
12. Chick Corea & Three Quartets, “Quartet No.2, Part 1” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Concord, 2001) (Corea, p, comp; Michael Brecker, ts; Eddie Gomez, b; Steve Gadd, d)
It’s a live recording. Pretty obviously Michael Brecker or someone who loves him deeply. So Mike is there. At first it sounded like a piano improvisation, then everything came in. There were some harmonies that were extracted from Monk, but then it went to a few different places. Other than that, the bass solo was somebody. I couldn’t really place them. At first, I thought it was Patitucci or someone like that, but as it went on… I have no idea who this could be. The only thing I could think of was perhaps a live version of Charlie Haden’s group or someone like that. [Any idea who the piano player is?] No, I don’t. I really have no idea. The drummer sounds like somebody I know and probably like, but as soon as they started swinging, he was playing kind of an open hi-hat on all four beats, and at that tempo, that’s kind of strange. So I’m thinking it’s a younger guy trying to do something to make it different. They were going for it, but something about it makes me want… Michael took a nice solo. The piano player can play. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I should know that. And that did come to mind. That’s well within Gadd’s style. But it didn’t sound like Chick to me. Cool.
13. Dave Douglas, “Catalyst” (from STRANGE LIBERATION, RCA, 2003) (Douglas, tp., comp.; Bill Frisell, g; Chris Potter, ts; Uri Caine, keyboards; James Genus, b; Clarence Penn, d.)
The drums were cool. The drums were right in between kind of playing some fusiony rock influenced stuff, but kind of loose. It was never really like locked-in. But I think that’s the effect they were going for. Easily some Miles “Bitches Brew” influenced stuff. Obviously not Miles. The guitar reminded me of Scofield for a second. The tenor player reminded me of someone like Chris Potter, so my off the top of my head guess would be some Dave Douglas type stuff. But I’m not really sure. It could be a lot of people. I don’t have Dave’s records where he experiments with that; I’ve just been reading stuff about that direction being there in one of his many bands. I couldn’t guess as far as the drummer’s identity. It was kind of splashy and loose, and kind of in a groove—not really in a serious, serious groove. 3 stars. [AFTER] Clarence Penn. That would match my guess. The thing about the drums that made it contemporary, something as simple as hearing a splash cymbal. Clarence is cool. He usually plays the appropriate thing. He can be creative, but then he can play out of bags and stuff like that, and that’s cool. But the bass definitely sounded like James to me. It had that air, that little excitement that was around that period of Miles. It got that color.
14. Horace Silver, “The African Queen” (from THE CAPE VERDEAN BLUES, Blue Note, 1965/1989) (Silver, p., comp; Woody Shaw, tp; Joe Henderson, ts; Bob Cranshaw, b; Roger Humphries, d) (5 stars)
Thanks for the gift. That’s got to be Horace Silver with Joe Henderson, and I guess that’s Woody Shaw, and I’d think you’d give me some Roger Humphries. Something about the crispness and the different style of placed me in that direction. I only have SONG FOR MY FATHER, and I’m not sure if this is on that or CAPE VERDEAN BLUES or whatever else Roger recorded with him.it was good for me to grow up seeing somebody like Roger Humphries. At the time I grew up, there was a big separation between this mythological world of jazz musicians and what was actually going on at the time. Because a lot of people didn’t come through Pittsburgh then. Prior to my moving to Boston, Roger was the prime evidence of there being virtuosos in the world who played the music. Actually, right after I first found out who Bird was and who Trane was and started to listen to that stuff, my pianist, David Budway, told me, “Well, if you want to learn to play this stuff, there’s a guy who lives on the North Side who will take you as a student.” It was Roger Humphries. His number was in the phone book, and I called him, and I went to his house. Mostly we just talked, and he showed me a few things, and I’d practice and he’d be across the room shooting pool with his friends. Then I’d go to his gigs and watch him. He chose to be in Pittsburgh and deal with his family, and yet still, I can say that there’s no one substantially greater on the drums today. Roy Haynes sounds better than ever in his seventies, and Elvin Jones the same way, but there’s not a significant difference between them and Roger Humphries. He makes me proud to be from Pittsburgh and all that stuff. He’s a beautiful person. Very much involved in education today, making sure that people understand the essence of what the music is about and that they have a good time with it. He gives them a good reason to love it. I gave Sid Catlett 5 stars, right? I’ll give this 5 stars, just because!
You got me, bro. You got me a couple of times. That’s all right. I’ll be ready next time.