With his fiercely polyrhythmic playing, Jeff “Tain” Watts has made an indelible impact on the sound of contemporary jazz drumming. While perhaps best known for his association with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Watts is also an accomplished composer and bandleader, with several albums to his name, including 2009’s Grammy-winning Watts (Dark Key Music).
This week, Watts convenes an intergenerational trio featuring longtime collaborator Paul Bollenback on guitar and James Francies on piano. We caught up with Watts at his home in Pennsylvania to talk about his life in Covid and his many new compositions.
The Jazz Gallery: What music will you be playing?
Jeff Watts: The music for the show—some music from a few different things. Some music that I’ve already recorded. Of course, like a lot of artists during this pandemic, a lot of unrecorded material, new stuff. You know, you have a lot of free time to compose! I’ve been working on a couple different projects. One is a suite of music that was funded by a Guggenheim fellowship almost three years ago. I proposed to them that I was going to do a musical tribute to the play cycle of August Wilson, who’s from my neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Originally it was about him, but then the more I studied August Wilson and his work, the more I wanted to be less derivative of anything. So as of now, this suite is a broader thing, about Pittsburgh and things indigenous to Pittsburgh, and I’m calling it “Suite to Pittsburgh”. There’ll be a few things from that.
I’ve been writing things about the pandemic itself—a song called “Sanctuary” that’s about being safe. I did something for The Jazz Gallery earlier in the pandemic, where they asked me what I was working on. I had a commission from the University of Michigan, right around the same time the riots were happening around the country, so I have a piece dedicated to George Floyd and how that moved things to a certain point where people felt the need to be responsible for the climate of the country. So I think we’ll premiere that piece. It’s called “Big Floyd and Tipping Point.” That should be very interesting; it has some spoken word, and it should be very evocative of jazz and Mingus and hip hop and a little bit of the vibe of the group the Last Poets.
What else did I write during this thing? Something about the virus—it was an excuse for me to write something in 19/8. I should be premiering a piece originally for the suite, but in the midst of it we lost Ellis Marsalis, so I wrote an elegy that’s dedicated to him.
And then I just wrote something last week. I was watching a documentary about Don Cherry, from 1978, that was done by some Swedish folks. And in the midst of his interview, he’s talking, and he’s like, “Yes, you know America has certain priorities, there’s emphasis on the media, trendy things,” basically saying the climate of America was stunting the “spontanewity” of an artist—and I just thought that word “spontanewity” was cool, so I wrote a new song.