From DRUM! Magazine’s August 2017 Issue | By Bob Doerschuk | Photo By Paul Haggard
What’s Jeff “Tain” Watts been doing lately? Well, among other things, he’s been spending a lot of time in church.
“It’s been three and a half years since we moved here,” says the former “young lion” who first impacted the jazz world 36 years ago with the Wynton Marsalis Quartet. “One of the better things I did toward the end of the ’80s was to purchase property in Boerum Hill, just a couple of blocks away from where they built the stadium for the Brooklyn Nets. As most New Yorkers know, that area went from being sketchy to some to being practically on a par with Chelsea in Manhattan.”
Once the real estate boom ballooned the value his Brooklyn digs, he sold the place and moved his family to a rental house in the Poconos. His plan was to buy a place where he could raise his kids, practice, do preproduction, and stash his various drum kits. Unexpectedly, he found what he was looking for in a nineteenth-century church. The seller, who ran an audio/video production company, had removed the altar and built a stage complete with lighting, while otherwise preserving the original interior. For Watts, it was perfect.
“There was a video screen,” Watts says. “There’s a working pipe organ and a green screen room. Also, three of the live rooms were cabled for audio and video, including a tracking studio in the basement. It was actually a lot more than it needed. Our family room is about 1,400 square feet, with 22′ ceilings. The church proper is 300 square feet. When I walked into this place I went in there and clapped my hands. Now, most drummers have a horror story about playing in a church because it can be so boomy. But this one has an ideal amount of resonance for recording. It didn’t sound like the Alps. And I was like, ‘I could actually do something in here!’”
With his most recent solo album, Blue, Vol. 2, wrapped and released last October, Watts has been able to play some sessions and gigs, mainly for friends of his. He’s also set aside time to work on writing. “That’s what I mainly focus on right now,” he says. “Of course, I’ve been doing it all along. Every time I do a gig, the musicians will have a track of mine from the past that they like. They’ll remind me about it and I’ll think, ‘Man, I used to write that kind of stuff! Maybe I should go back, expand on it and use it now in a different way.’”
How different are his more recent compositions? “Maybe it was a little subtler in the past,” he answers. “It might be a swinging tune or an abstract tune or something else, but it would have a device from popular music or a jingle in there. Now when I write, wherever the song ends up, that’s where it stays as far as its genre, presentation, and attitude. I’m maybe a little less clever, but a little more open and personal.”
Classical composition was part of the curriculum when Watts attended the Berklee College Of Music, and before that Duquesne University, as an applied conservatory student specializing in timpani. In studying and playing works by Beethoven, Stravinsky, Milhaud, and many other giants of the repertoire, he absorbed much of what they created in terms of rhythm and texture. The birthplace of his aesthetic as a writer was where these insights joined with what he was gleaning at the same time from the music of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane.
These and other varied influences form the foundation of Watts’ writing. “It’s all in there,” he says. “Sometimes as I’m working on a tune, an influence will come out and I’ll be conscious of it. Or something will remind me about that reference. It’s sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious. That’s why people might ask me to trace the inspiration for a song I recorded; I can describe it, but I’ll forget what the actual references were.”
Often, though, Watts can outline the genesis of one of his tunes. “I did something on Family  called ‘Of August Moon,’” he recalls. “It’s a jammy song in five, with a modulation in it. I dedicated it to August Wilson. When I talk about this piece, I usually say that it has scenes in it — an Afro-based section, for example, and also more of an Ellingtonian section. To me, these sections reflect the dichotomy of a lot of what Wilson did with his Pittsburgh Cycle.”
Watts is referring to the series of ten plays written by Wilson, all but one set in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh where Watts grew up, with each reflecting aspects of the African American experience in a different decade of the twentieth century. “It’s basically the story of Reconstruction,” he explains. “You have these African Americans trying to cope with the system and perhaps assimilate. But at a certain point there’s always some kind of mystical thing that takes them back into a more folkloric state where they’re reminded about their Motherland.”
Then, to make the make the breadth of his sources clear, he adds, “That’s pretty much the esoteric theme of the tune. But for the initial melody I was looking for something soulful. I ended up kind of basing it on Jimmy Webb’s ‘Galveston.’”
Sometimes it can be a lot simpler than that. On his latest solo album, Blue, Vol. 2, the opening cut, “Chicken Ballet” is made up of little more than that four-note motif Muddy Waters pounded out on “Mannish Boy” and countless blues bands have echoed ever since. Watts’ inspiration, though, was a little less gritty than what Muddy had in mind.
“I got the title from Isis, my youngest daughter,” he reveals, smiling. “She was telling us she wanted to go to Chick-fil-A, but she didn’t know how to say it, so it came out ‘Chicken Ballet.’”
As for the music, Watts harked back to “Backward Country Boy Blues,” a track from Money Jungle, a trio summit featuring Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. “It’s an atypical, gospel type of blues,” he points out. “Instead of the I chord going to the IV chord and then back to the I, the melody goes from the I chord directly to the V chord. That gives it a churchy flavor. I wanted to write something like that and to make it soulful. So I took an array of the inflections that Aretha Franklin added to the melody on ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’ and brought in some bebop things to give it completion.”
This mix-and-match method often yields fresh results. It also takes some of the angst out of writing. “Some of my things, I write them just to see what happens,” Watts says. “They might come out. They might not. Maybe a bass line will come first. I’ll try it out on my plywood acoustic bass to make sure it’s comfortable to play. Or if I hear most of it, I’ll put it into Sibelius in my computer, get the vertical harmonies, take them to the piano and check them out. Usually that gets me about 90 percent there.
“‘Vodville’ even started as a drum solo,” he adds, citing a track from his 2002 Bar Talk album. “I have perfect pitch, so [when] I played it back I was able to orchestrate it. However I start, I like to remember something that [bassist] Robert Hurst told me, ‘If you’re having trouble, just make a melody. Then make a bass line to go with it. Then you can determine whether you want the harmony to be dark or light.’ That’s a simple way to get into it.”
Last year, Watts decided to seek approval from the Establishment for what he’s accomplished. It isn’t his nature to seek the spotlight, but after a little nudging from friends, he applied for a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in the field of composition.
“Applying for stuff like this doesn’t usually appeal to me because you have to talk about yourself,” he says, maybe a little embarrassed. “I mean, it’s cool to talk about what you do. But things of this nature involve almost a separate language, kind of a nerd speech. I don’t want to judge past winners, but it’s something I normally wouldn’t do. I’d rather just throw my stuff out there and let it bounce off human beings.”
Watts began by figuring out which compositions might fit best into the Guggenheim’s criteria. His conclusion was to go with “stuff that had a few more bells and whistles, elements that they could quantify. I guess I felt I had to show off and try to demonstrate compositional things. Of course improvisation was involved as well, but mainly I wanted to make sure they could easily see structure.”
Despite his apprehension, Watts made the cut for 2017. In announcing him as an honoree, the Guggenheim noted, “Watts trusts his ears and instincts, trying to exploit the freedom granted by developments in all music. The line between contemporary classical, jazz, folkloric, and other forms including hip-hop is a light one, as Jeff feels free to mix and match his influences. He strives for expression foremost, and tries to not limit where a composition can go. He also attempts to humanize polyrhythm, using it to replace the need for a conductor, or to emulate organic situations and emotion.”
Of course, Drum readers have been aware of this all along. The proof has always been in the music. On Blue, Vol. 2, it ranges from playful to austere, hard driving and reflective, and always with melodies that sing and speak with eloquent persuasion.
Take “14E,” a ballad built around a tune that feels as if Watts had tailored it specifically for his guest soloist, harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret. “For my ballads, I’m always thinking first of the song,” he confirms. “Certain songs require a really great voice, whether it’s human or instrumental. I was spoiled, because for many years I had access to Branford’s [Marsalis] soprano saxophone, which is a truly inspired and beautiful voice. When I can’t get that, Grégoire is my man. He can be creative, touching, and affecting, which is perfect for this piece.”
In arranging as in composing, Watts lets his imagination run freely. On Blue, Vol. 2, then, it felt natural to take the spiritual “Wade In The Water,” abbreviate the title to “Water,” and let that lead him to bathe the intro in a liquid-like feel, emphasized by background ambience and cymbal washes.
“When you do a treatment, you have to have an initial point of attack,” he says. “For this one it was kind of obvious. It’s basically a Coltrane/‘India’ treatment. But I wanted some electricity and energy in there. I didn’t want to do something where people listen and they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s so-and-so playing that solo!’ I wanted it to be more of a vibe and let the musicians play. It’s not about solos. It’s not even about melody. It’s just working together to create a vibe that people can sit back and chill as they listen.”
The Art Of The Vibe
“Vibing” is a vital part of Watts’ aesthetic. Its meaning is somewhere in the same ballpark as “grooving.” In fact, the two enhance each other. Yet their meanings differ slightly. The groove concept usually suggests working with the meter to establish momentum. Vibing involves momentum too, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily rely on a time signature to keep going. In fact, as Watts sees it, phrasing within the structure can be confining at times.
To hear this concept in action, check out “Cleo,” featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks, on Blue, Vol. 2. At the top the waltz time is clear. But the further you get into the song, the more abstract the drumming becomes. You can still feel the 3/4-meter, though that has more to do with how Eubanks, Watts, and bassist Dwayne Dolphin spelled it out in the first minute or so. If you start playback somewhere near the end and isolate the drums, it’s harder to hear where each measure starts.
This observation cues Watts to laugh uproariously. “Yeah, man,” he confirms. “In the trio setting you have a few less musicians, but you’re still trying to sustain a vibe together. It’s more about the vibe than Kevin playing a line and then I quote from it. It’s a different kind of conversation, more sustained and moody and organic. It’s an alternative to this linear ‘I said this, now you say that’ kind of exchange.
“In fact,” he elaborates, “it’s more like an actual conversation — actually, it’s more like life. As instrumentalists focus on manipulating function and letting function be a bigger part of their improvisation, people will get more variety out of that. Cats will be able to groove, but it can be an abstract groove. You could play a vibe for ten minutes and then play the song.”
Watts and Eubanks follow the same principle on the guitarist’s recent album East West Time Line, with Dave Holland on bass. Once they spell out 10/8-time in the opening measure, they take it outside while still moving things forward — i.e., grooving and vibing. Yet they also play off each other now and then, in a variation on “I said this, now you say that.”
“I guess there’s some of that jazz pedagogy there, in the way people dialog back and forth, like with Don Blackwell and Ornette Coleman,” Watts concedes. “It’s part of the history, like what Papa Jo [Jones] did with Lester Young on Live At Birdland; he chopped all kinds of stuff up. But when [Thelonious] Monk did that, somebody might play something and you might just play a half-note. Or you might try and swing harder, really dig into function. Definitely in the ’80s that was big for me. I’d hear somebody play something and try to find a place to show a response to it. I still go there.”
He pauses. “I guess it was because I was playing with Dave Holland. I wanted to make sure I was right with this bad-ass character.”
After another big laugh, Watts adds, “You know, sometimes you just want to play something hip, even if you’re gonna mess up.”
Every musician can relate to that. Still, when you’re called to play on someone else’s session, you need to make some decisions. The challenge is to recognize that you got the gig in part because of what you offer uniquely as a drummer, but then find a way to adapt that to the leader’s vision. Most recently, Watts dealt with this when bassist Charnett Moffett recruited him for his latest album, From Our Soul.
“There were some things that Charnett wanted that were very specific,” Watts recalls. “I might hear something else, but it’s cool because Charnett and I have so much history. We’ve been playing together since we were 15, I think. I can look at a chart and I’m like, ‘Yeah! I can do that thing I practiced for two years right here!’ But I also welcome the opportunity to adapt and learn something.”
At this point, two threads cross as Watts talks about tuning when on another artist’s project and how his perfect pitch affects that. “I’ve done some ballads with Branford and other people that required a precise timpani bass note,” he remembers. “And somebody told me that Tony Williams would tune his toms to a quarter-tone between pitches so it wouldn’t mess with the bass. But for me it’s mostly about the relationship between the drums in your kit. It’s like Billy Higgins said: Make them sound like they belong together. Make them sound like a family.”
This brings to mind a day in the studio on a date Watts prefers not to mention. “I did this session where the producer was really anal,” he says, grinning. “He was like, ‘These two rack toms have the same amount of ring but the floor tom is ringing too much!’ I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with that? The more resonance, the better!’ But he was like, ‘I want to muffle it!’ I said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll muffle it while I’m playing! I might do a long note and then shorten the next one with my stick or my hand. I might want that resonance at the end of the tune.’ Finally, this guy wanted so badly to mute it that I said to the guy, ‘If you want it, you do it.’ And he did, which I thought was really funny.”
As for what he brings to the studio for sessions, Watts generally takes five or six pieces. “I used to be hardcore, with an 18″ kick for certain jazzy things and a 22″ for anything else. Of course, it really shouldn’t matter: Bernard Purdie played an 18″ and Tony Williams played a 24″. But lately I’m feeling that I need to play a 20″. I’ve only got one in my collection, but I think I’ll add it to my main kit because with a bigger kick, when your snare’s on that little crunch comes back up at you — boom! That’s just so cool.”
The Road Ahead
Watts’ calendar includes a studio date in Amsterdam, various trio gigs, and performances with several bands at New York’s Jazz Standard in September to mark Elvin Jones’ 90th birthday. And, as always, he’ll be going, above all, for the vibe — and making it work regardless of the gig.
“See, I deal with rhythm like harmony,” he sums up. “When you take it far away from some obvious function, it’s like dissonant harmonies. I have control over it all, which justifies it when I go out to left field. I equate it to Coltrane playing really spacey things, but then resolving into very, very deep blues. That’s what I’m trying to do. I take you on this journey but I always know where I am.”