(c) 1994 JMI
Distributed by JVC
There was a time - as vintage jazz musicians will tell you - when certain hornmen didn't need a microphone. Their sounds were so full and penetrating that they would fill ballrooms and clubs without any electronic help at all. So it was with Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Chu Berry.
The power of these compelling storytellers also came from their ceaseless energy - what George Bernard Shaw used to call "the life force."
Ernie Watts continues that legacy. Furthermore, because his playing encompasses such diversity of idioms, his performances - as on this set - are the embodiment of Whitney Balliett's definition of jazz: "The sound of surprise."
Or, as Don Heckman put it in the Los Angeles Times: "Ernie Watts never ceases to amaze. This all-purpose saxophonist keeps turning up in new places, playing new music and making the most of every challenge."
Ernie Watts rejects categories and any other limits on his music. He defines himself. As he describes his evolution into a player beyond category: "When you first start out, you want to sound like somebody else, but at a point you've got to step back and ask yourself, ' What's my voice?' There is a point in your life, after you've studied, listened to the masters of the craft and (understood) what they are doing, where it's important to know who you are, what you are doing, and why you are doing it.
"Then, that's when you're all alone, and from there, you create your own voice."
Once that happens - and it does not happen to every musician or writer or composer - you listen to that voice, no matter what anyone else says. I remember how hurt John Coltrane was when he was being mercilessly attacked by some critics because they thought he had gone outside the jazz tradition. He was hurt, but he didn't let them change his voice. Once he had found it, there was no way he was going to lose it.
There are very few jazz musicians who - while finding and nurturing their musical identity - have had so wide-ranging a career as Ernie Watts. And the multiplicity of his experiences has been an integral part of his growth as a musician.
While in his second year at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Watts was hired by Buddy Rich who was leading a powerhouse big band. As word of Watts' enlivening sound and ideas moved around the jazz world, he recorded and toured with, among other, Cannonball Adderley, Smokey Robinson, Herbie Hancock, the Rolling Stones, Oliver Nelson, Path Metheny, Frank Zappa, and over a substantial period, Charlie Haden, one of the most adventurous creators in jazz.
For some twenty years, moreover, Ernie Watts was a distinctive regular in Doc Severinsen's big band on the Johnny Carson show.
Asked about the scope of his musical associations, Ernie Watts has said: "What I do is a very high level of craft. It's still my sound and it's still my energy, so whatever the language - rhythm and blues dialect, the be-bop dialect, the big band dialect, or the fusion dialect, the sound I get on the instrument is my voice..."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to play rock and roll, and R&B, and be-bop, and fusion, too. If you ever talked to Coltrane or Charlie Parker about their music, you would have seen they were open to all kinds of music."
Indeed, Bird was a great fan of country music. Why? "Listen to the stories." he explained. "Listen to the stories."
And listen to the stories on this Ernie Watts set - to me the most continually deeply energizing jazz session he has ever recorded. The rhythm section - drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Charles Fambrough and pianist Mulgrew Miller - have the skills, drive and soul to keep up with Ernie Watts' cascading ideas and emotions.
On to number - Reaching Up and The High Road - Arturo Sandoval, another jazzman that never lets up, joins the group. Says Watts about Sandoval: "When we first met, it was like we had known each other forever. Music is just an extension of your life. So if you don't get along well off the stage, you generally don't play too well together on the stage."
Throughout the album, it's clear that Ernie Watts and his instruments are one. He has pointed out that you need to get to the point where you are so comfortable on the instruments that you don't feel any resistance when you are playing. Improvising is like talking. If you think about where the "T" in talk is then the idea is gone, and you're somewhere else in the conversation."
William Butler Yeats once wrote a poem in which he noted that the highest expression of art is when you can't tell the dancer from the dance, so seamless is the performance. Similarly, Charles Mingus told me once that at a liberating point in his development, he no longer thought in terms of playing the bass; he was playing music. He and the bass had joined, and then, as Ernie Watts puts it, "you don't feel any resistance when you're playing."
What comes through in this set is Ernie Watts' essential lyricism - no matter the tempo or the tune. Way back, before jazz had a name, people in the South listening to the earliest improvisers on various horns, called them "songsters" because they sang on their instruments. That's what I mean by Ernie Watts' fundamental lyricism. I have never, for instance, heard so transforming and passionately singing a version of I Hear A Rhapsody as Ernie Watts' here.
There are some players with Ernie Watts' total command of an instrument who focus more on showing their technical prowess than on creating music. They tend to equate showers of notes with saying something. But Watts is always saying something - as musicians used to put it - through that mastery of his horn.
Also, he is never in the least tentative. His authority comes though clearly from note one. And he swings like a tidal wave. Indeed, the depth and strength of his jazz time reminds me of hearing Ben Webster one night on a gig where the club owner supplied the local rhythm section. Those players were not making it. So Ben waved them to be silent and proceeded to implement his credo: "If the rhythm section isn't making it, go for yourself."
And he did. He swung that whole room all by himself. If he had to, Ernie Watts could do that too.