"He is one of the greatest living
tenor saxophonists, at the top of his game."
Ian Patterson / All About Jazz
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
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
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."
PLAYS KEILWERTH SAXOPHONES EXCLUSIVELY,
USES D'ADDARIO JAZZ SELECT REEDS on alto and soprano, and
PETER PONZOL SYNTHETIC REEDS on tenor
Personal Management: BATES MEYER, INC.
Phone: 909-547-0504 Fax: 909-547-0901