"He is one of the greatest living tenor saxophonists, at the top of his game."
Ian Patterson / All About Jazz

Two-time Grammy Award winner Ernie Watts is one of the most versatile and prolific saxophone players in music. It has been more than fifty-five years since he first picked up a saxophone, and from age sixteen on he has been playing professionally, initially while still attending school. Watts has been featured on over 500 recordings by artists ranging from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa, always exhibiting his unforgettable trademark sound. In March of 2014, Watts received the prestigious Frankfurt Music Prize at the Frankfurt MusikMesse. Founded in 1980, the Frankfurt Music Prize is presented annually. Recipients include classical and non-classical musicians. Of the 32 current winners, only 6 have been jazz musicians. Per the Frankfurt Music Prize Foundation, Watts was "selected for his strikingly melodic saxophone style and his original tone language, with which he has already enriched several generations of musicians." Previous jazz honorees include Chick Corea, Paquito D'Rivera, and John McLaughlin.

After 15 albums as a leader, for a variety of labels large and small, Watts started Flying Dolphin Records in 2004, in partnership with his wife Patricia. Flying Dolphin (distributed by City Hall Records in the US and Laika Records in Germany) is a new chapter for the artist's creative expression. "Through my years of studio work, touring, and recording," he says, "I've played in every kind of musical setting. I've reached a place in my life where I need to make music on my terms. Starting my own label provided me with a new sense of freedom."

The most recent way this freedom is expressed is through Flying Dolphin's newest release, A Simple Truth (2014). This concept album is joyful and uplifting, full of energy and life. It starts with "Morning" and ends at "Evening," lush orchestral pieces with saxophone which bookend the recording, with Quartet tunes between the two. Highlights include the exquisite "No Lonely Nights" by Keith Jarrett, the highest-energy-ever "Bebop" by Dizzy Gillespie and the warm, singing ballad "A Simple Truth" by Watts.

Other releases in the Flying Dolphin catalog include Oasis (2011), reflecting on Watts' own personal oasis, music, with original pieces and a reference to John Coltrane, the original Watts muse, through the Coltrane piece "Crescent." Four plus Four (2009) is a studio project with both the US and European Ernie Watts Quartets, recorded in Los Angeles and Cologne, Germany, including "Through My Window," a Watts original written to showcase both quartets together. To The Point (2007) was made high-energy live with the Ernie Watts Quartet at The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. Analog Man (2006) is winner of the Independent Music Award for Best Jazz Album of 2007, with his European Quartet, touring together since 1999. Spirit Song (2005) was Watts' first studio recording as a leader since the release of Classic Moods (JVC) in 1999. Watts used a handmade cedar Spirit Flute to introduce the title track, creating the haunting folk melody which is then reprised on tenor.

Flying Dolphin's first release ALIVE (2004) was recorded live at the Backstage in Fulda, Germany. The chance to hear Watts at immediate heat in the midst of his own music had only been available before to his concert audiences.

Watts started playing saxophone at age 13 in Wilmington, Delaware. He went with a friend to their junior high school music department, and found himself carrying home an instrument too. "I was a self-starter; no one ever had to tell me to practice," remembers Watts. His discipline combined with natural talent began to shape his life. He won a scholarship to the Wilmington Music School where he studied classical music and technique, and was a featured soloist with the Delaware Symphony by age 16. But his neighbor heard him practicing, and started lending him jazz records. As Ernie put it, "Because she saw I wasn't going to quit," his mother gave him his own record player plus a record club membership, for Christmas. That first free club record, the first jazz record of his own, turned out to be the brand-new Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. "When I first heard John Coltrane play, it was like someone put my hand into a light socket," Watts says. He started to learn jazz by ear, often falling asleep at night listening to a stack of Coltrane records. Although he enrolled briefly at West Chester University in music education, he soon won a Downbeat Scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, renowned for jazz.

When Gene Quill quit Buddy Rich's Big Band in Boston, trombonist Phil Wilson (a professor at Berklee), was asked to recommend a student as temporary replacement. A young Ernie Watts was referred, and left Berklee for that important spot. The "student temporary" stayed with Rich from 1966-1968 and toured the world, also recording two albums with the band-Big Swing Face and The New One. Ernie says now, "I guess I got the job," and laughs.

Next, Watts moved to Los Angeles and began working in the big bands of Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson. With the Nelson band, Watts visited West Africa on a two-month U.S. State Department tour in 1969. It was also with Oliver Nelson that Watts recorded with the legendary Thelonious Monk on Monk's Blues for Columbia.

During the 1970s and '80s, Watts was immersed in the busy production scene of Los Angeles. His signature sound was heard on countless TV shows and movie scores, almost all the early West Coast Motown sessions, and with pop stars such as Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire, Steely Dan, and Aretha Franklin. He was also a member of the band for the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for 20 years, until Carson's retirement in 1991. Though the pop music genre placed narrow confines on his performance, the sessions enabled Watts to constantly hone and refine his tone. This was noticed by Dr. L. Subramaniam, a renowned Indian violinist and film composer, in 1987 when Watts played on Subramaniam's soundtrack for the ground-breaking film Salaam Bombay, in Los Angeles. They still play together, performing Subramaniam's Indian classical music with other instruments and traditions, a global fusion that has now been heard worldwide. But after years in the studios, Watts' passion for acoustic jazz never left him. At the end of a long day of sessions, he could frequently be heard playing fiery jazz in late-night clubs around Los Angeles.

In 1983, the film composer Michel Colombier wrote an orchestral piece titled "Nightbird" for Watts. At the work's inaugural performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, iconic jazz bassist Charlie Haden came backstage to introduce himself. The meeting led to Watts performing with Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra and to tours with Pat Metheny's Special Quartet which included Haden.

Watts' touring with Metheny's group in the late 1980s was a turning point for him. "The serious energy of the music inspired me to choose work at this level of performance," Watts remembers. Haden's critically-acclaimed Quartet West was formed soon after, and Watts was a charter member, touring and recording with it for twenty-five years until Haden's death in 2014. Watts' work for the audiophile Japanese label JVC Music and, later, his growing catalog of original music for Flying Dolphin continue to express his joy in the power of jazz.

His four recordings for JVC Music include some of his favorite players, such as Jack DeJohnette, Arturo Sandoval, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller, Eddie Gomez, Jimmy Cobb and Reggie Workman, and both jazz classics and original music by Watts. After starting Flying Dolphin, he also recorded duet CDs Blue Topaz and Pa Chuly with acclaimed German pianist (and member of his European quartet) Christof Saenger for Laika Records.

Watts' eclectic mix of career activities has included work with vocalist Kurt Elling on Dedicated To You, recorded live at Lincoln Center, which won Elling his first Grammy Award, and concerts with the WDR Big Band Cologne in Germany, the Croatian Radio Televsion Jazz Orchestra in Zagreb and the National Radio Band of Slovenia, which played two of his compositions arranged for Watts by the celebrated Michael Abene. He has performed in Jazz at the Kennedy Center, with the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra in Los Angeles, and has toured major cities in India with Dr. Subramaniam.

A typical year finds him touring Europe with his own European Ernie Watts Quartet in spring and fall, and performing at summer festivals throughout North America and Europe. One of his latest projects in 2015 is with the Sligo Jazz Project and Festival in Ireland, a week-long workshop with jazz students with two festival concerts as well. He is also Guest of Honor at the 2015 Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado, playing with his US Ernie Watts Quartet.

He gives back to the music by conducting clinics and master classes, both on the student and professional level, and soon will release his first educational video A Melodic Approach to Improvisation. Watts has also compiled a collection of orchestral arrangements for guest soloist appearances with symphonies, most recently with the National Symphony of Costa Rica.

Summing it all up, Watts describes his ongoing journey: "I see music as the common bond having potential to bring all people together in peace and harmony. I believe that music is God singing through us, an energy to be used for good."

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