In conversation with jeff "tain" watts
By Ted Panken
Seven years ago, I interviewed drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts upon the release of Bar Talk, his second album as a leader. In the resultant Downbeat article, I wrote that Watts as was in the process of morphing "from flow-shaping celebrity sideman to leader with an inclusive vision." In our conversation, Watts speculated on the next phase of his career.
"Dave Holland said that he writes tunes, records them, [and] plays them on the road to find out what he can do on them, and uses that knowledge to determine what he writes later," Watts said at the time. "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."
Over the next five years, Watts would present his own projects with increasing frequency, continuing to refine his compositional and group concepts. In 2007 he took the next step toward achieving his goals by releasing Folk's Songs on his own label, Dark Key. The repertoire comprised seven of his own diverse compositions, as well as tunes by Keith Jarrett and Kenny Kirkland. Watts called his band "Tain and the Ebonix." Its core consisted of the young saxophonist Marcus Strickland, who frequently tours with Watts; veteran pianist Dave Kikoski, a long-time colleague; and bass megastar Christian McBride. The group plugged-in on several tunes, adding guitarist David Gilmour and keyboardist Henry Hey. On other tunes Watts expanded the beat palette by adding the Afro-Panamanian percussionist Samuel Torres.
This year Watts released another project on Dark Key, the eponymously titled Watts. The all-acoustic affair employs the talents of three of the most prominent instrumental voices on the scene: Watts' long-time employer/associate Branford Marsalis on soprano and tenor saxes, Terence Blanchard on trumpet, and McBride on bass. Watts gives the musicians plenty of space to stretch and interact on a suite of tunes that make use of a host of musical strategies—burnouts, blues, stomps, bebop, funk, and quiet storm. As seems always to be the case on Watts' projects, the results are incendiary.
"I want to be able to interface with almost any type of musician," Watts told me. "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."
This March I sat down once again and talked with Watts—about his latest project, his approach to composition and playing drums, and his relationships with colleagues like Branford and the late Kenny Kirkland. We also talked in some depth about his time with the band that put him on the map: the influential Wynton Marsalis Quintet of the 1980s.
By what process did the Dark Keys label develop? What inspired you to take the plunge?
I recorded Folk's Songs right before Christmas in 2006. At the time I started thinking about [recording] it, I wasn't formally signed to anybody, but I'd done a live recording for Half Note and did have a loose thing with them. I approached them with my concept for this record, and asked if they would consider doing a studio recording. They said, 'Yeah, ok,' but then they offered me X amount of dollars. At the time, the idea of maybe doing it myself was running through my head. So I said, 'How about if you give me X amount of dollars, and I match your funds, and then license it to you for four or five years, but I own the master?' They said no.
At the same time, Branford was considering signing me to his label, to Marsalis Music. He gave me a timeline, and 'we can sign you in September of '06, and you can do something maybe in the middle of 2007.' Now, the main thing about this label is I can write music and I can put it out when I want to put it out. A lot of these pieces, like 'The Devil's Ring Tone,' I have to get out into the air so I can move on and write some other stuff. So I told Branford, 'The latest I can record is November or December of 2006, because I just want to get this stuff out, get rid of it and get it off my plate.' But they weren't able to do that.
I also had a meeting with Eli Wolf at Blue Note. But all the while, I was fully prepared and ready to try to do it myself. I'm happy I did.
How did you set it up financially? Was it out of savings? Did you get investors?
I simply wrote checks. One thing that freed things up for me is that, despite the ups and downs of the economy, I was fortunate enough to pay off this apartment six years ago, so apart from a small rent payment, my expenses are small. So I had the money lying around, and I figured I'd go for it. The first one, I didn't stretch out that much—I got my friends to do favors for me. It worked out. I was skittish about putting out money, but at the same time it's very, very real, because you're investing in yourself. You play music. You want to make records. Put your money where your mouth is, and pay for it, and see what happens. It's been a really cool experience. With the help of Laura Kahle, we see who's buying the music and also take a hand in trying to sell the music, put it out there, and get people to come to the site—all that little stuff.
The two records have very different sounds. Did you approach each project with a certain overall intent?
On Folk's Songs I wanted to redefine people's conception of me, to have some music that was open and straight-ahead, but also music that had a bit of electronics, some beats, and so on—to be more stylistically open. So Folk's Songs is more of a mixed bag. Now, in trying to do this label thing, I pay more attention than I normally would to what people write about my stuff and whatever. Some people are really into having a lot of different music on a recording, and I thought it was a really cool time to do that because of the way people listen to music now. Everybody has some kind of iPod set on shuffle, so in one sitting they're accustomed to listening to some classical music, then some funk, then some bluegrass, and some Coltrane, and whatever. But some writers had an averse reaction to this, like, 'What kind of record is this? It's all over the place.' Whatever. So I decided my next record would be an acoustic jazz record. We'll see what happens with that.
People gave you trouble on the grounds you stated?
Not a lot of people. But it was like, 'It seemed like it was going to be an acoustic record, and then this guitar kicks in, and then there's this-and-that.' I didn't see it as being that radical at all, but some people did. I'm just trying different things, trying to please myself, yet I'm conscious of a consumer, of people knowing what they're going to get. So I made some kind of decision that I would make 'Jeff "Tain" Watts' records and have them be kind of jazzy, and I'll make 'Tain and the Ebonix' records that could be more diverse.
On Watts, the new record, you're representing yourself with an 'all-star' band—Terence Blanchard, Branford, and Christian McBride.
A lot of my intention with this label is to document a certain amount of stuff with McBride. Although we're very friendly and we've done a few things, we haven't recorded a lot together. So I'm trying to challenge myself and see what we can accomplish together. Also, I feel that a lot of people look at swinging like it's old, like 'Oh, that's already been done.' A lot of people are trying to get away from swinging, like if you're doing that, you're just recreating some past stuff. But I feel that if people really, really swing hard, it's as fresh as anything. There's still new music to be written, new songs to be written, new vibes to be put out there. So by hiring Christian I'm trying to give myself a very good chance of swinging hard.
On Watts, the players happen to be famous people, but I've developed a certain level of a relationship with each of them. I've known Terence for years. I'm on his first Columbia CD. I didn't do a lot of gigs with him, but he's one of my better friends in music, so I felt like we would have a rapport. What makes Branford really cool is that he's got this voice and this vibe, and his sound, and a great relationship with rhythm, but also that he's a really intuitive, selfless accompanist. He's a good person to play along with somebody, and he respects the whole. He knows when to lay back, and he can be a point man and support. Eric Revis pointed something out to me on the version of 'Blutain' at the end of Citizen Tain, with Branford and Wynton and Kenny Garrett. Wynton's personality is being reasonably strong, Kenny Garrett is standing his ground, kind of aggressive, and Branford is just in the corner, playing some really clever stuff in a really understated way. It would be interesting to transcribe just what he played. He rarely took the lead. I used to be amazed at how he and Wynton could play together and phrase together, but now, in later years, I think that's a result of Branford's ability to be really complementary.
You've also said it's because they shared a bedroom as kids.
They shared each other's farts for many years. A little synergy there. I mean, it's an all-star group, but, as I've said in other interviews, the reason why these cats are well known is because they really love music. They get excited listening to music and talking about music. They live music.
It also occurred to me is that Terence and Branford are the same age, both from New Orleans, with a lot of shared experience, and they attain their own level of polyphony. A lot of the tunes here seem to be set up for that type of dialogue to happen.
Mmm-hmm. I definitely wanted to take advantage of that. As far as the written music, there's a lot of specific information, but there's also some stuff that's open and subject to their interpretation and doing what they feel like doing, a little bit of text just to describe a vibe. So I definitely leaned on that little New Orleans relationship they have.
How long did it take for the repertoire to come together?
It came together over the past year—as soon as Folk's Songs came out, I started thinking about the next one.
Then you could let it go.
Exactly. The first piece, 'Return of the Jitney Man,' the opening bass line and the opening trumpet figure had been laying around since I lived in Los Angeles, and I knew I wanted to do something with them. 'Jitney Man' is about my dad, who did construction work, but whenever the holidays came around he would drive a jitney cab to make some extra money for Christmas. I wanted to get a vibration like cars and traffic, so that pushed me in the direction of having a couple of horns, and having them be in close intervals and then moving farther away. You hear them together, then one takes the lead and passes the other one, and then passes back off to the other one. I started working on it within the past year-and-a-half. As soon as the previous recording came out, I started thinking about the next recording.
The blues, 'Brekkie with Drekkie' is about a year old. But it's really simple. I wrote it in probably a week-and-a-half. My girlfriend is from Australia, and she was talking with a friend and she was like, 'Yeah, we're gonna go and have some brekkie.' I was like, 'What is "brekkie"?' 'It's breakfast in Australia.' One of the kind of underground nicknames for Michael Brecker was 'Drekkie,' so I thought, 'Ok, I'm going to write a tune for Michael.' I remembered that on gigs, he enjoyed playing 'The Turnaround' by Ornette Coleman without piano. So I tried to write us a stylized version of that. There's a variation on it, and also a brief instant with some funk superimposed over the melody. I wanted to inject that part of Michael's vibe. Eric Revis was around Michael, and he played with him on Bar Talk, on 'Mr. J.J.,' the tune with Michael and Branford. But even before he was around Michael, although he had a certain amount of respect for him as a jazz musician, he really revelled in the fact that he had such a close association with George Clinton, and with Larry Blackman in Cameo, and Rick James, and these people that were dead up in the funk. There's Randy Brecker and Michael Brecker, but in the 'hood everybody knew about the Brecker Brothers. 'Yeah, the Brecker Brothers are on this record. This is bad. Let me get this record. The Brecker Brothers.' So the bass line that is concealed inside of that funk, inside of that blues, is a variation on 'P-Funk Wants To Get Funked Up.' I just decided to stick that in. That's for Michael.
'Katrina James.' [The time signature is] 15/8?
James Brown horn line?
James Brown horn line, basically ... almost ... based on this tune, 'You Got the Move' from In The Jungle Groove, twisted around. I started playing my version of the bass line on my acoustic bass one day. I come up with all these odd types of things, I play them, then I figure out what they are, and then they just happen to be odd—and it's cool. Ok, we got a groove and we got a line. That's all we need. Once in a while, to write something like that, it's not seriously rocket science. It's just a groove, just a thing.
'Owed' is just cool and sweet. I like to write something pretty. I like ballads. I feel like if I have an entire recording that Branford Marsalis is on, I am at fault if I don't have something pretty for that soprano horn. That's all that's about. It's one of the great voices in music.
Followed directly by 'Dancing 4 Chicken.'
How appropriate! Most of this stuff was within a year of doing the recording. But with 'Dancin' 4 Chicken,' I thought about the term and the concept ... I had the tune written, I started playing it on gigs, and I started trying to engage my audience. 'This is about the concept of the Uncle Tom.'
Oh, you talk about it.
I have talked about it. I talked about it for maybe five or six gigs, but it made people very uncomfortable.
Were these white audiences or black audiences?
Mixed audiences. I've had black people be uncomfortable. An older black woman was like, 'Man, I didn't want to hear the song after you started talking about it, but then I heard it. It's a nice song. You don't have to talk about that no more. Why you gotta talk about that?' Then I asked the audience, 'Who's an Uncle Tom these days?' People would try to indict people. But then a lot of the time they wouldn't necessarily try to indict a black person. It would be a blanket sell-out designation or something. Some people said Tom Cruise. That's kind of refreshing. Tom Cruise is an Uncle Tom. But in general, either people didn't want to dig up the past representation of that, or didn't care to venture a guess on the present. So I just started to look at it as a thing about our time. The Man is a brother now. It's like you can't sell out to the Man. For a lot of people, selling out is almost cool if you have some goal. It's like, 'Ok, I'm compromising myself a little bit, but wait, I'm going to get this from this person and this person, and I'm going to do something with it.' It's part of the consciousness. So it's there. It's not really a putdown. In general, the politics of this is not to take some big grandstand or whatever. It's just a moment in time.
Were you thinking of any musical antecedents as well? I was thinking of some of Mingus' things.
Because McBride digs in, and Mingus did stomps with that kind of feeling back in the day.
That's in there, too. One of the earliest Mingus things I heard was 'Eat That Chicken.' That whole concept was just so funny to me. That's swinging hard, and with the two horn voices, it's like Branford's voice is dominant and Terence's voice kind of scurries to co-sign him, to agree with what he's saying. That's the function of the two horns on the melody.
'Wry Koln' is an old Tain hit.
I just made it a drum solo, with the horns accompanying me here and there. Two things led me in that direction. There's some little piece that Roy Haynes plays. I don't know what it is. But he'll be at the Vanguard, he'll finish a tune, and he'll give the guys a cue, they'll play a line, then he'll play some stuff, and whenever he gets tired of playing, he'll play something else, and they'll play a line. I wanted something in my book that fulfilled that function. I adapted 'Wry Koln' for that reason, and also there's that tune 'T&T' on which the horns provide a backdrop to Ed Blackwell that's on that blue-and-yellow Ornette record, called Ornette.
'Dingle-Dangle' sounds like you reworked 'Trinkle-Tinkle.' Am I correct?
Yes. I was playing with somebody who wanted to play 'Trinkle Tinkle,' but they hadn't practiced.
They didn't play it right.
They didn't play it right! And nobody ever plays it right. I mean, it's hardly ever really, really played right. So I decided to write an easy one for lazy people. 'Dingle-Dangle' is a lazy man's version, so you can just do it, get to the song, and take your solo. Otherwise, I would have spent a lot more days.
And hence, spent more money.
That's right. I sold out the music to save some studio time.
Then there's the showpiece, 'Devil's Ring Tone.' This was originally composed for a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert that didn't happen.
Yes, I was going to have a chance to do it live. Everything's a joke with me, so I thought about the concept of the Devil having a ringtone, and I started writing this thing. Originally, it was just going to be an instrumental piece, but then, as I got into the recording, I started thinking about Mingus and about 'Fables of Faubus' and things like that, and I wanted to incorporate some spoken word into the music.
You cast a well-known actor, who remains nameless, as the two male voices. Was he improvising, or did you write a script?
I wrote a script. I might expand upon it. Whenever I wrote the vocal tunes in the past, and wrote quasi-pop songs, and sang, I'm just trying to challenge myself and have fun! So I wanted to do something with spoken word, and I foresaw performing it later on, and having people do the parts, and perhaps go to different areas of the club, and have the music come down and do spoken word and things like that.
You've done comic, ironic things on every record that have the quality of an in-joke, like 'J.C. Is The Man.' But this isn't an in-joke. What brought you there? The Presidential campaign?
I guess so. Once again, I don't completely indict our past President. I never truly say that it is him. It's close enough that anybody knows it's probably him. But at the same time, it's not even that heavy or scathing or anything. It just marks a moment in time where 20 or 30 years from now, if people look back, it's like, 'Ok, I guess things were bad enough in the United States at that time where this guy wanted to just say something about it.' It's like, 'How did this person even get a second term? I guess he made a deal with the Devil.' That's basically it. It's not heavy or anything like that. I got into the challenge of constructing the music so that certain sections could be longer and shorter to accommodate the dialogue, and that certain things would go with the vocal effects and the phone effects and so on.
'M'Buzai' is a drum solo. I wanted to do something mellow with the mallets. It's almost kind of for some Deadheads or something like that, how they like to meditate in the middle of a show. Or people relaxing at home; after they hear 'The Devil's Ring Tone,' then they can reflect.
What component of the information in your compositions comes from the drums and what component comes from the other areas of music? Is that something you can separate?
Probably except in ballads, the rhythmic awareness I get from the drums enables me to write stuff. Certain tunes ask for a certain amount of rhythm, and on certain tunes hopefully the melody is strong enough that it doesn't require very much fluctuation of tempo or whatever. I'm sure by this point it's integrated for me.
Let's discuss how you came to composing. You've said that when you were in Wynton Marsalis' band, you weren't particularly confident, but he kept suggesting that you bring things in, and that started you off.
I guess that's so. In 1983 and 1984, he was putting together recordings, and he tried to encourage everyone to contribute. He'd tell me, 'Man, you can write something for this, and if it's halfway done, we'll play it and make it right.' I think part of it was so that he'd have stuff to learn from, some other viewpoints on composition, some other directions in the music, but also to have some other people contributing music to the record to take some of the load off of him, like it's not all his vision. He was trying to share the contribution, but at the same time share the burden.
Did you contribute any compositions to the band?
I co-wrote a very simple blues that's on Live at Blues Alley, which was completely a joke. I was just afraid to write.
Why were you afraid to write at the time?
I didn't feel like I knew enough rules. Then later on, Kenny Kirkland said, 'maybe you don't need to know all those rules; just write and don't worry about that; you can hear, you've got really great ears, and you know what music sounds like—just write it, and don't trip on it.'
Describe your early encounters with Wynton, how the music of that quintet started to take shape.
He brought in the bulk of the tunes, and the music emerged from what his original repertoire needed as well as the tunes from the lexicon. I guess the early band was supposed to try to pick up the threads and move forward from where he felt the music had stopped, with the exception of the pure avant-garde free music. Maybe at the time there was a vibe from him that people had been seriously playing music, seriously playing jazz, that Ornette's band was there, and Trane's band was there, and Miles' band was there, and some other stuff was going on, but then it stopped, and then there was this evil fusion, and then there was all this free music with people that can't really play trying to play, and that this made people not really serious.
His initial jumping-off point was Miles' quintet, and then he started to introduce Ornette Coleman's music. Logical extensions of what was happening in the '60s. Not so much Coltrane until much later. We were just checking stuff out. Wynton's focus is very systematic, and whatever he's checking out at a given time, that's what's going on. So Miles' group in the '60s—at that time, that's what it is. I know he had an appreciation for John Coltrane's music and that quartet, but because of the way his mind worked, he only had room to appreciate Miles' group back then. I can honestly say that we were in Europe somewhere, on a bus, and we actually got into an adolescent comparison of Miles' group in the '60s and Coltrane's classic quartet. I'm sure everybody has conversations that they would like to take back ...
From Wynton's perspective, his thing was, like, 'Work on your instrument, really try to play it on a high level,' and a good percentage of his criteria at that time of what it takes to play an instrument felt like it was based on the European aesthetic. So when making the comparison of Miles' band and Trane's band, he felt like Miles' band dealt with that European standard more. There was more harmonic sophistication. The way that Tony Williams played the drums, there's more overtly European type of techniques being used as opposed to Elvin.
Was it acceptable not to play in some form or variation of Tony Williams' language, or were you welcome to put forth your own voice?
Pretty much the primary assignment he gave me was to try to find some things that Tony Williams didn't play. Which was very difficult, because he played so many things! So while that music was a template, and we played some of it and got ideas from it, it was definitely important to be working on a voice. Work on all your instrumental criteria. I'm sure he would have liked it if everybody was truly dedicated and in the practice room all the time. But it definitely wasn't like that! It was just fun.
How much collective input entered into the musical production of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet? You were all pretty talented, strong-minded musicians.
It was a collective. Everybody contributed through the ensemble stuff. There was a big, unspoken emphasis on connecting, just from the connection he and Branford had in breathing together and playing off each other. Branford and I developed a certain vocabulary with each other—when Wynton took his solo, we'd be in a certain space, and have a certain type of connection with him, then when Branford took his solo it would take the rhythm section into a completely different zone. Of course, Kenny Kirkland was just a swinging fool, and you couldn't help but connect with that. This was around the time when the Plugged Nickel recordings were becoming available, so everybody started trying to experiment with playing in different times over forms, and so on. We would experiment with that, and with playing very open, trying to come out of Wayne's conception, where you're playing the song, but sometimes it almost sounds like you're ignoring the song, and the validation comes through how you resolve back into the sound—to sum that up without being too technical.
The first band had challenges just from the individuals. There's a certain instrumental challenge to deal with Wynton, because he played with so much facility and a certain amount of imagination, and he could go a lot of places. Branford had a very creative thing, and we developed our styles together. My vocabulary as a jazz musician was pretty small, so there would be situations when he would try to predict what I was going to play, and he would play along with what I was going to play. That made me get into the thing that I still do, as far as displacing things, initiating big chunks of melody and terminating them in funny places, taking a familiar object and putting it up here so it's instantly abstract, even though it contains something familiar. That was basically trying to trick him. But that's one thing that gave us our sound.
Kenny Kirkland was a whole other thing, because he was the best musician in the band. He was already a very mature musician, more mature than everybody in the group. He had already arrived at a place where he was very, very comfortable. Any kind of issues regarding music, he had already resolved them. He had internalized a very broad understanding of music. That's partly why he was able to swing so hard, because he was very comfortable with his musical world and his relationship with it.
Did he and Wynton interact a lot? In your opinion, did he have an influence on Wynton?
Completely. A lot of Wynton's compositions, he had a certain amount of traditional harmonic information. He had a certain amount of stuff that he got from being around Herbie Hancock: 'What is that voicing? How did you figure that out?' But during the time that our group was together, I'm sure almost every day he was asking Kenny Kirkland, 'How do you get that to sound like that? How do you make the band swing like that? What's going on?' Kenny knew what everybody should know, that none of this belongs to us anyway. So he was very free with music. But I can definitely say that one of the great things about the group is that people could have an opportunity to hear Kenny Kirkland playing some music that's pretty open. If that group didn't exist with that visibility, with the allure of being able to play together with some people and make a good living and try to play some creative music, we wouldn't have that much of a taste of Kenny Kirkland in the open court.
Wynton once said that a lot of the rhythmic characteristics of his playing evolved through playing with you. Maybe you only think of this in retrospect, but over those six years how did you see his sound and style evolving, apart from just getting better?
He got better. His initial stuff sounds as though he's the cockiest person in the world, but he was constantly second-guessing himself, questioning himself, 'Am I doing this?' or 'Does my sound sound cheesy?' or 'I wasn't really swinging on that phrase,' or 'Why did I play this' or 'Why did I play that?' He was always asking for anything he didn't quite know about. 'What is this rhythm?' 'What is that rhythm?' 'Where did you learn this?' He just got better and better. He focused on all the aspects of his playing. He always had flexibility and facility and velocity. Over the years, his sound has gotten warmer and warmer and more broad. There's a lot of people who can move around. It's the difference between Bill Watrous, for example, and someone like Slide Hampton or J.J. Johnson. They can all move around, but two of them move around with a really big-ass sound. That's the difference between Clifford Brown and Doc Severinsen. It's easier to play some fast shit with a small sound. I think so. On any instrument, the acoustic bass or whatever. On the drums, too.
He's probably one of the most artistically responsible people that I've been around. Just with the initial thrust of his popularity and people being amazed by him at 17-18-19 years old, he could have been like the wunderkind, and relax on that and play some amazing stuff, and do that for the next thirty years. Nobody would complain substantially. Some people probably would like it more. People are more comfortable, I think, when your style doesn't change that much. It's like they know where to find you in a supermarket and all that stuff. It's cool like that.
But he challenged himself. He tried to do a Michael Jordan type of thing and bring more things into his game. Also with the band. The band's focus definitely started out being about Miles in the '60s and about Ornette Coleman's various groups and a little bit of Coltrane's influence, but then after a while he started transcribing Monk. He wouldn't be satisfied just to cover a Monk tune. He would learn to play it at the piano and learn a percentage of what Monk played on it, and then put an arrangement on it, and then he started to attack the standard repertoire more and more. So he made sure that every standard that he was trying to do, he would learn it at the piano, learn the lyrics and listen to different versions of people singing the tune and instrumentalists attacking the tune, and then put an arrangement on it. It wasn't just like, 'Okay, these are the changes and let's play it.' He was very respectful to tunes.
Is it your impression that a lot of people were aware of that group and listened hard to it? Did these groups have a palpable influence on the sound of jazz in 1990 and 1995?
Definitely. Musically it was in a kind of middle ground. With each recording, there would be a little bit of material that you can trace back to the tradition, but it was being interpreted in a different way—a little flavor, a little rhythm, a little voicing or comping device from the piano or whatever. Part of it is because the stuff was fresh and part of it was because the records were kind of pervasive in jazz terms, routinely selling 80,000 or 100,000. Chances are if people were buying jazz records during that time, they'd probably buy one of those—people that actually try to listen to jazz. So I think a certain amount of role model thing came out of it just because the group had so much exposure, which made it a little more palatable than usual to a young musician to actually study and consciously pursue a career in jazz. It made it kind of cool, in a way, just that suit-and-tie imagery that rolled through, that made it a viable alternative or whatever ...
You yourself actually had quite a bit of formal training on your instrument and in music before you even started being aware of jazz, much less playing it. You started playing snare drum maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and then classical percussion in high school, which you majored in at Duquesne before you matriculated at Berklee.
I had a lot of structured education about music. I definitely had to take a certain amount of theory classes and counterpoint, which [at the time] I wasn't good at. I guess it required me to be a little meticulous, and I wasn't set to do that yet. I had to study a certain amount of piano, but I didn't really take any of it to heart. Whatever semi-formal training I had in classical music, I didn't know that I could mix it; I didn't consciously realize that I could cross the line and utilize it in my 'jazz composition.' I didn't make the connection. Just by not worrying about jazzy rules and things like that, it allowed that part of me that knew something about music [and] that knew something about harmony, to come out organically.
You also once told me that you initially wanted to be a studio percussionist in the vein of Ralph McDonald.
Yeah, or like Harvey Mason or someone like that, putting down a drum part, and then going back and putting down two various percussion parts, tympani or mallets or whatever was needed. I wanted to be versatile, and my initial pursuit of jazz was part of that goal, just to be able to sound authentic if someone needed some jazzy-sounding stuff for a soundtrack, or for a commercial or something like that—just like a style to cop as opposed to a way of life or a lifestyle.
Jazz turned me out. [Laughs] Jazz turned me out! I got really connected to it. The more I found out about jazz, the more I felt like I should try to make some kind of contribution to it. As I got into jazz drums and started discovering more and more about bebop, I perceived there to be a lot of black people involved in this music. I was like, 'Wow, there's a lot of brothers that did a lot of stuff in this music, and they were really smart and they could play their instrument well;' they really worked to create some stuff. So I felt connected to it on that level early on, definitely.
You also became close to a very good drummer in Pittsburgh, Roger Humphries. Also, Joe Harris and Cecil Brooks, III.
They were all around.
Did knowing them have an impact on your leaning towards jazz during those years, or did this happen at Berklee? Because when you got to Berklee, there was a critical mass of young black men and women who were interested in jazz. Any speculation on that?
Some kind of curiosity was in the air. People were there: Osby and Branford and Smitty Smith and Donald Harrison and all these people. Everybody could play decently when they got there, but there was just a real curiosity—trying to really really deal with recorded music, trying to come up with a voice. People putting together bands; people reinvestigating and recreating their version of stuff that had been documented, trying on different hats and different styles. A lot of people tell me—people who went to Berklee before us and people who went after us—that there hadn't really been a time like that, and that it's definitely very different now, that there's much more emphasis on music production. Everybody's trying to be Diddy or something like that.
The time with Wynton, for all the ups and downs, sounds like a very intense period of research and development. He gave you assignments, which you might have bridled at, but in the long run it seems that the process helped you come up with a lot of stuff.
True. Wynton had his viewpoint on where the drums could potentially go, based on his experience working with mainly Art Blakey and Tony Williams, so you have ...
Wasn't James Black in there, too?
James Black also. Something about the contribution of New Orleans music was important to him, so I tried to research that. I made some tapes of guys playing with Louis Armstrong, older stuff, also Baby Dodds, and I tried to fit that in. Knowing that he worked with Art Blakey, and definitely he tried to swing hard, and that he worked with Tony Williams, I was trying to be creative and come up with stuff.
Some of the stuff I play is very specific stuff that I studied, and some of it is stuff that I've figured out and created, little systems and things like that. Towards the end of my time with Wynton, in the quartet with Marcus [Roberts], when we started interpreting standards and interpreting Monk and those kinds of things, I started to institute a lot of my ideas about time. These were asymmetrical improvisational cycles that work over standards and blues. They're almost like exercises. A typical one would be to play in the normal 4/4 tempo, and then to play in the tempo dictated by the half note triplet, which is a slightly slower pulse, like three to a bar, and then in half-time, and then to go from the half-time to the pulse implied by the dotted quarter note, which a lot of people confused with the strict triplet pulse. It's different because it overlaps on the bars. It's not like 3 beats to a bar. It's kind of the time divided by three eighth-notes and whatever. So it has a certain flow that's close to the triplet pulse, but it's different. I'd give them those four phrases to play over something like a blues, which only has three phrases. So by the time they would get back to the beginning of the blues, they would have to attack that harmony with a different rhythmic schematic. So the cycle would be asymmetric to what the music was.
These ideas are a means to an end, a strategy to give maximum flexibility to deal with the harmony but be free with the rhythm, so that whenever you play, you're not limited by how you've worked your eighth notes out over a particular chord structure. It's just something to loosen things up, to make you free. Anyway, Wynton was looking for a direction for the band and asked me if I had something for them to do, so I volunteered these ideas. He gave it to the band, and we would rehearse it, and then we'd experiment by playing standards and so on, and everybody would go their own free way, and resolve together, or not. It developed into a thematic architecture that went across the band.
The R&D continued during the '90s with Branford and with Danilo Perez. It's been a constant process.
Over the years, I've been trying to function in jazz and function in a lot of the swing idiom, but I've also tried to study a certain amount of ethnic stuff—Indian and Afro-Cuban things, and also bring in vocabulary that's more directly linked to Africa—and add that to the music. At the same time, I've also tried to be as well-versed as possible as far as polyrhythm, both from a European standpoint and from an African standpoint.
What do you mean by polyrhythm from a European standpoint and polyrhythm from an African standpoint?
With African polyrhythm, there's a basic heartbeat which kind of morphs. It's how you can superimpose the 6/8 rhythm of African music on top of just 4/4 music, and it's almost basically the same. I feel in that music that the 2-and-4 and 3-and-6 and are almost basically the same thing. Also, it's about you feel. There's also the dance aspect of that, and how that affects the musicians. Then the life aspect, how all the different rhythms influence life and vice-versa. That's the African aspect of polyrhythm.
The European aspect is a really clear thing. A lot of it I got from Eastern Europe, the gypsies and Bulgaria, where people dance in 9 and dance in 13. Then, if you examine contemporary classical music and Bartok's music, the things that would later have an influence on Don Ellis and on Frank Zappa, and people like that, you get into something that I call the European style of polyrhythm, like taking four beats and clinically fitting five beats in the space where the four beats are, or seven beats in that space, and really having an understanding of that. Basically, I've been trying to find a balance between those schools so that I'm comfortable with the time. I'm trying to have a lot of options for where I choose to place a beat.
Overall, I'm striving for the freedom to play in form, but to be able to get to the texture of playing free, but with control. The R&D is going to keep going. I need to do some traveling. I need to actually go to West Africa and North Africa and Central Africa. I'm trying to study stuff from, like ... where is it ... Tain-zania! I'm looking at Tanzania right now, right around Congo and Tanzania, and writing some interpretations of that music.
Your R&D was influential on many drummers who came up after you emerged with Wynton, as far as finding ways to swing and flow in odd meters. Not that you were the first to do it, but your solutions had an impact. Does 'swinging' mean something different today than when you were a young guy?
It seems that a goodly portion of new improvised music, if it's not free music, then it's often a kind of update on the Euro style of straight-eighth feel. It's a really artsy thing, not really based in any kind of groove. It's just straight, and people find color in it, and people find a language within that—and that's cool. But it's almost like guys, whenever they decide to swing, they're putting on their swing hat, as opposed to trying to play swing like it's alive now. It's like, 'Oh yeah, let's do some of that swing stuff; yeah, ok, we're swinging.' It's not just drummers. It's horn players. I mean, the blues is not everything, and I don't want to sound old at the same time, but I feel there should be some way to inject some of that skank or some of that heart and melody from the blues into these newer styles that people are trying to play. But it's kind of separated. Guys are playing good, and they can swing, but a lot of people don't do it like it's music that's alive today. That's important for me, and that's why I continue to try to write something swinging that's different, so that it's not just, 'ok, we're playing swing, so we're regurgitating Monk or Coltrane'—although I have those influences in my music. There're many stories to tell. A lot more stuff to do with it.
You also heavily investigated Afro-Cuban music.
Yeah. It just helps to connect the dots. I mean, Max Roach and Elvin Jones both had a certain amount of influence from Africa. Max's thing was probably more North or East African, in terms of the linear type of speaking thing, whereas Elvin's thing and probably Art Blakey's thing has more of the ground rhythm, more of the earthy kind of West African type of thing, where you establish that heartbeat, and then it frees you to play all this other stuff, but you still have this ground thing in there. It helped me to understand Elvin more, because I would listen to his drum solos, and even if he was playing over a standard, it would sound like he was playing free. But the more I understood about Africa and about Afro-Cuban music, then I could see that he was choosing different points of resolution than the standard European-based up-and-down type of thing. He's not just playing eighth notes and quarter notes and sixteenth notes and conventional triplets. It's stuff that you can't write, that you have to feel. So it opened that door for me.
Now that you've recorded the material on Watts, what are your plans? What's happening over the summer and fall that you can tell me about?
I have a European tour in March and another European tour in July. Branford is also putting out a recording, on which 'The Return of the Jitney Man' is also the first tune, but with piano. So I'll be touring his record this year. Basically, I want to fill up the year. I'm not thinking about recording anything at all for a year, or maybe more, but we're making a plan to tour the Watts Project with this group in 2010. So I'm letting everybody do their projects. Terence just recorded; he'll probably have a CD out in the fall. Branford's record drops now. McBride always has something going on, and he has a couple of things coming out. I'll try to tour this thing next year, but I want to make it like a real ensemble, so I'm composing more music for this group in addition to my regular stuff. Everybody's kind of looking at it like this is an all-star group or whatever. No, it's one of my bands. We're going to do gigs, and we're going to develop a body of music, and I'm just going to keep adding to it, and it's going to get crazier and crazier. I want it to be just like the Art Ensemble 2K.
Ted Panken interviewed Jeff Watts on March 10, 2009.