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.
TJG: How do imagine all of this music working with this particular band?
JW: We’re just going to try and improvise! This is kind of a new group, although these musicians have worked with me in many other configurations, I wanted to put them together and do something without bass. For the pandemic, whenever musicians do go indoors, we’re trying to make it as safe as possible. I could have done a guitar trio, but I have other voices and parts, so I wanted to have two chordal instruments, so that brings us to the musicians.
Paul Bollenback has worked with everyone; he has the whole history of music in there, he’s a scientist, he plays with a lot of feeling, and he just transcends the guitar. We’ve been collaborating a lot over the years. James Frances I met as a student at Banff, and of course he’s come to New York and done many great things, but he always checks in with me and he’ll stop by randomly just to see if I have new music to play, and stuff like that. We have a good relationship. I think it’ll be cool. We’re going to rehearse next week, but I’ve already sent them the music, and I’m eager to see what they’ll do with it.
Right now I live in this old church in Pennsylvania, about an hour from the city, but I also have a place in Harlem. I’ll be in New York the afternoon before the gig. I’ve sent them music, I’m programming maybe ten pieces of music, and so I chose five things that we’re familiar with, that I’ve composed, and five new things. And I’ve described them and sent them the music, and I hope to give them the latitude to check in with me and ask questions. I guess the climate now makes it really weird: I didn’t want to load them up too much, because we can only be indoors for a certain amount of time, and it’s just a really tricky time. But they’re very proficient and smart people, and so I feel like if they have any questions they’ll call and talk to me, and we can maximize the time that we have for rehearsal, maybe ninety minutes or a couple hours.
Lately I’ve been doing gigs, even before the pandemic, since I’m composing a lot and always have music coming in and out and I need to process it, bounce it off of musicians to make sure that it’s cool. And so in the tradition of Charles Mingus, I’ve started to do gigs and actually workshop on the gigs and feel free to rehearse during gigs. I feel like, just with the nature of what The Jazz Gallery represents, that process will be refreshing to people who are watching: they can get insight into the process. But we’ll be rehearsed and ready to actually perform these things, but if something doesn’t work or breaks down, I reserve the right to stop and rehearse in front of the people!
TJG: You mentioned Paul Bollenbeck—I wanted to ask about that, because you’ve been on his records as well, so that’s a changing relationship, alternating being sidemen.
JW: Yeah. I first met Paul I guess maybe twenty years ago, twenty two or twenty three. I had just gotten back from living in Los Angeles while I was working on the Tonight Show, and the great Gary Thomas called me for what I think was his first recording, the saxophonist Gary Thomas. And I got to the studio and Paul’s there, this guy is there, who’s this guy? We stayed in touch—he started calling me for his sessions, and when I put together my first proper band, while I was signed to Sony music, for some reason I just wanted to use him.
He plays guitar, but the way that he plays, his scope and range, it kind of transcends the guitar. It’s like having a horn but having a rhythm instrument but also having, like a synthesizer pad. Whenever I have Paul and piano together, it’s kind of like, he’s so smart, his chordal thing and textural thing is like an extension of the keyboard instrument. It’s really cool, we have a certain amount of vocabulary together. There’s certain things that I compose that aren’t really typical, but he’s been playing my stuff for a while, so he can kind of feel my intention, which is great.
TJG: When you’re composing, what does that process look like for you? You talked about influences coming from a lot of different directions earlier—do you start with ideas or music?
JW: I write from a lot of different references. A lot of things are based on jokes—I wrote a song called “Snarkasm” where I spoke a rant, and I have perfect pitch, so I put notes and changes to the rant, just based on syllables. I’ve written songs about drunkenness. I feel like it can start anywhere, the tune, and I’ll have influences from world music, little disguised hip hop references, things like that. I wrote a tune for Paul Motian, five years ago, after he passed, and the bridge for some reason I extracted a memory I had of a Chopin scherzo in E. It can come from anywhere, and I’ve learned to let the tune go and to treat each tune like a child—let it be whatever it’s going to be and not have any preconception for it.
I did this recording called “Watts” years ago, inspired by Charles Mingus and “Mingus Presents Mingus”. That was with Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride, we did a pianoless quartet, and Terence Blanchard actually won a grammy for best solo for that recording. There’s certain songs on there—I wrote a song called “Dancing For Chicken,” basically describing the dynamic of like, what is an Uncle Tom? What is a sellout in today’s world? Because in today’s world, it kind of feels like selling out is kind of cool if you have some kind of reward in your own personal big picture. It’s like, why’d you sell out? Hey man, I got paid, and then I was able to do this! So in today’s world, people play with that balance, so what really is an Uncle Tom these days, you know?
I had a vision of the song, and I wrote it and foresaw something between Mingus and bluegrass and Ornette Coleman, a light tone; heavy subtext but a light tone. I gave it to the musicians, and it almost immediately went to another place, and I’m listening to Branford Marsalis playing like, man, that’s not what I thought he was going to play on this! I don’t really know if he set the tune out. Because I expected the improvisation to be in another space. But then the more I listened, I was like, wow, he’s gone beyond my preconception of what the improvisation would be—he’s digested the concepts, and personalized it. I’m just glad I didn’t say anything to him about what he was doing. You learn that each tune is like a baby!
I have one tune on my “Family” recording, that ended up being called “Little Michael.” But whenever I wrote it, I expected it to be like a tone poem, like something Keith Jarrett or Paul Motian would play; a free song, a rubato type of a ballad. I brought the song with me when I was doing some work in France, David Kikoski at piano. So I got there a day early and we started rehearsing the music, and I pulled out “Little Michael,” though it had some crazy name at the time. What I foresaw for the tune—I called it some nonsense word like “Skedelba” or something like that—the tune was to describe the state of when you first wake up, disoriented and functioning on instinct as opposed to having any kind of plan. Although I wanted the tune to be rubato, sometimes we’ll play it in time first; then everyone will know the song and we can breathe together and kind of let it undulate. So everybody read the song, and it reminded David of Michael Jackson’s song “You’re Out Of My Life”, something in the melody. So I ended up recording the song in time, and it wasn’t long after Michael Jackson had passed, and so that’s how the song got its name. You have to let the tunes go where they want to go.
Another thing I’ve learned from the combination of trying to write music and also from doing research about August Wilson, when I was trying to do the suite for him—it’s obvious, and maybe in a composition class someone might tell you this—but I think it’s good for your listeners to have this insight. I was reading about August, and he was describing creating a character in a play, and he said that a character can evolve from, he might just have one line of dialogue when he first starts to write the character. It might be a line of dialogue like, “Yes when I have eggs in the morning I like to put tabasco on my eggs.” So then the character unfolds from both sides, from their past and their future, just from that beginning. More and more about the character comes from that. That taught me when I’m writing, sometimes I’ll have a theme and I’ll feel like it’s the beginning of the song, but then the more I’m doing it I feel I need an exposition, to set a context for this, so it’ll end up being the bridge or the middle. These are things that can help young composers, if you get stuck, you can have more of a free association with how you put things together.
TJG: Starting with the structure and seeing what needs to go where.
JW: Anything works—you build the context first, just have a melody. When I was getting into writing, one of the early devices—I had a block against writing for a long time, so when I was working with Wynton and Branford Marsalis and different people, they would request compositions from me, and it was kind of freaking me out. I was like, how are these people writing this music? How do you get a foothold? And so people were offering me various devices. Robert Hurst came and he had a simple thing, maybe he won’t admit it now. But he was like, man, when you write, have a melody, then you decide on some root motion or bass motion, and then you just make a decision if you want the harmony to be dark or light. So that’s his tip.
There’s another musician from Detroit, I saw years ago in a group Geri Allen lead. A music festival in Pittsburgh while Geri Allen was in residence at the University of Pittsburgh, and she brought a group of musicians from Detroit, probably in 1980. This was the first time I met Robert Hurst, and he was probably 15 or 16 at the time. They came to town, and it was Bob and her and some other horn players, the great Marcus Belgrade, and there’s a drummer, well-known in Detroit, named Lawrence Williams. He’s also a very prolific composer. And so one of his devices that would help him get some momentum, he would write from the rhythm first. He would compose the whole tune without pitches, and if the rhythm gave a complete thought, told a story, then it had a good chance of your composition having a good life to it. I’ll try anything, so I like that.
TJG: I have some friends who will walk and do voice memos.
JW: I do that a lot, like if I’m in the car and have an idea come into my head I’ll just sing it into my phone, take care of it when I get home.
TJG: What’s your daily schedule like in Covid?
JW: I have two kids, nine-year-old girls, they’ll be ten at the end of the month. They’re doing remote schooling, so we get everyone up in the morning and make sure they’re doing okay, locked in for class. I’m trying to write every day, trying to get my vessel nice and clear. It’s unfortunate, a lot of stuff that’s happened and that we lost so many people, but at the same time it’s been a cleansing thing for me. I’m trying to make sure this pandemic—the people that are here, I think there’s a process where I’m trying to make sure everything counts. That whatever statement I make coming out of this is really personal and really unique to myself and true. Everything has to ring with honesty and truth. I’m trying to get myself prepared and focused, and physically cool, strong and consistent, so that whatever statement I make is like that.
So we just make sure the kids are cool, get through the day, practice, exercise. I finally got an exercise bike so I don’t have to go out. I make sure I play piano. My girls have taken up instruments now, so one of them is playing alto and one of them is playing acoustic bass, so we make sure they practice.
TJG: Do you guys play together?
JW: We’re playing together! And that’s what I’m digging. They have their lessons, but at some point, we just play, and I encourage them to just play, whether we’re playing free. I’ve been teaching them a little Equinox, some Coltrane, stuff like that. It would be great in two years, if everything’s clear, if I could just play with my kids whenever I have a show. I’ve been trying to write music that’s easy enough for them to be expressive but that I can also get some things done with. That would be really nice. I’m inspired by the great bassist Charnette Moffett, his father Charles Moffett of course worked with the great Ornette Coleman and was a great teacher and player, but he had a band with his children. One of his other sons was a drummer, and Charnette. There’s a picture of this Japanese magazine, Swing Journal, with Charles Moffett and young Charnette Moffett, maybe 8 years old, playing a scaled-down bass. That would be great to play with my kids.
TJG: That’s really nice.
JW: Yeah, you know, we’re quarantining together, so we should have some kind of performance outlet.
TJG: How do you feel about performing for an audience you can’t see?
JW: It’s weird, but it’s okay. I miss the energy of bouncing energy off audience members. But one door closes a little bit and it opens up some possibilities. There’s always a balance between playing for an audience and just playing for the people on the stage, and we can just focus on that energy and try to project that group vibration.
TJG: Do you tune into many of these zoom performances?
JW: Yeah, I’ll drop in on some folks. I don’t really make an appointment, I kind of stumble upon them, but it’s interesting. This pandemic thing, it’s stimulating that type of vibration—musicians reaching out in isolation and doing remote music with each other. And people are doing music from home, which has sped up the curve on that process of being self-sufficient with music.
TJG: Knowing how to record yourself, people have been doing more and more, but now it’s even more important.
JW: It’s good that people are doing that, directing their own output. And really, people don’t buy much music now anyway, so you might as well have control, and try to produce it yourself.
TJG: Anything else you feel like we should get to?
JW: We’re just gonna come in and try to be very real, be conscious, uplift, give positive energy, and show some expression and be artists! We want to salute The Jazz Gallery for the work they’ve done and continue to do. Rio is very conscientious, and it’s become more of a young musicians’ place, it’s cool. I’m glad to go in and interface with people. She’s always concerned with what the cats are doing, how we can help the younger cats, have some solidarity in the scene. I’m sure it’s a lot of work—love to the Gallery.
Jeff “Tain” Watts plays a livestream concert from The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 11, 2021. Mr. Watts (drums) will be joined by James Francies on piano/keyboards and Paul Bollenback on guitar. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. EST. $20 per set, $5 for members. Purchase tickets here.