Blow by Blow

The versatile virtues of Ernie Watts

What do Cannonball Adderley, Rickie Lee Jones, Three Dog Night, Thelonious Monk, Nancy Wilson, Andre Crouch, the Commodores, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Charlie Haden, Quincy Jones, Doc Severinsen, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Mathis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra have in common?

Ernie Watts knows.

Since moving to LA in 1968, the saxophonist has recorded and/or appeared with all of them and more. A complete list of Watts' film, studio and concert work scrolls like a phone book. His tenor sound, with its glossy, almost polished brassiness in the upper register and robust, Coltrane-like fullness in the lower, is immediately recognizable, no matter the context. Pregnant with feeling, it's a sound that seems to hang continually on the edge of sanity, as if Watts might suddenly break out in a rush of pent-up emotion and scream his wits out, or cry softly. Yet it's all done with a grace that belies the adrenaline.

"He's one of the most versatile players I've ever met," says pianist Jon Mayer, who'll play with Watts in his combo Friday at Steamers. "He can play in endless contexts—funk, raga, WAVE station shit, avant-garde, classical. He's interested in it all."

"I've always loved all kinds of music," says Watts, trying to explain his many sides in a pre-millennial phone call from Tokyo, where he was appearing at the city's Blue Note club with contemporary swing bandleader and vocalist Bobby Caldwell. "And I didn't put a whole lot of rules on it."

In addition to toiling on behalf of others, Watts has also released a bevy of albums under his own name, stretching from 1982's commercially successful by jazz standards Chariots of Fire through more straight-ahead dates in the '90s on the JVC label with such stellar performers as pianist Geri Allen, drummer Jack DeJohnette and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. The latest, Classic Moods, features Watts with pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist George Mraz and drummer Jimmy Cobb, an early hero of the 54-year-old Watts. The four play a collection of more-than-familiar tunes—"On Green Dolphin Street," "Round Midnight," "Lush Life"—in an exquisitely passionate style.

"I guess it's just the way I developed," says the Norfolk, Virginia, native, who spent his grade-school years in Detroit and his teens in Wilmington, Delaware. "I grew up playing all kinds of music, playing in a rock band in high school while studying the classical sax repertoire and at the same time listening to Miles and Coltrane and trying to copy what they played. It just all evolved together."

Watts started getting into jazz when he was 15. "My mom realized I was serious about music and bought me a little record player for Christmas, and we joined the Columbia Record Club. My first album was [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue."

That recording gave Watts his first exposure to a principal influence, alto sax man Cannonball Adderley (as well as Cobb, who would later play on Watts' Classic Moods). But the first sax player whose recordings guided his own direction was Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck's alto bleater.

"[Desmond] was the first sax player that made me feel encouraged about what I was doing when I listened to him," Watts says. "He was the first who I could understand, who I could copy some of the things that he was doing."

It didn't stop there. A friendly neighbor with a large jazz-album collection began lending Watts recordings and providing guidance. Soon he was listening to Eric Dolphy, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, and Wayne Shorter's work with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. "I listened to hundreds of albums trying to learn how to improvise by ear," he says. "I just kept growing."

Through a contest sponsored by Downbeat magazine, Watts won a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston (another winner that year, pianist Alan Broadbent, would later join Watts in Haden's acclaimed Quartet West). But the saxophone instructor, Joe Viola, decided that Watts already had solid skills and encouraged him to pick up the oboe, a move to versatility that would one day increase his value as a studio sausage. "I was interested in playing all the instruments and had taught myself the flute and clarinet, so the oboe was a perfect fit," he says.

In 1966, Watts left Berklee to join drummer Buddy Rich's notorious ensemble, his first experience touring with a jazz band. The Rich group spent 13 weeks in LA one summer as the studio band for a TV show hosted by singer-pianist Buddy Greco. Months later, even after he left Rich in 1968, Watts remembered LA.

"I had spent a good amount of time there [with Rich] and had met a lot of the local players and worked out in rehearsal bands," he says. "I'd always thought I'd live in New York, but I liked the feeling of space out west. It was a better environment for my nature. And when I got here, I realized more people knew me than I thought."

Watts was quickly absorbed into the local scene, working in the bands of Gerald Wilson, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Bobby Bryant. Because of the variety of instruments he played, he subbed for Buddy Collette, Bill Green and other reed men who were in heavy club rotation. A friendship with saxophonist and studio arranger Oliver Nelson opened up some film and TV work. When Nelson was tapped in 1968 to conduct Thelonious Monk's ensemble album for Columbia, Monk's Blues, Watts was added to the orchestra.

But his most visible and enduring job came as a member of Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band. Severinsen had picked Watts to be in the group when Carson and company began coming out from New York for their twice-yearly visits. When the show moved permanently to LA in 1972, Watts' sound and visage were being beamed nightly into millions of homes. In addition, he was playing for dozens of NBC and CBS shows, everything from Andy Williams to Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Only one thing kept him off the TV screen during those years—and that was other studio work. He had been discovered by the powers that be at Motown after the label moved from Detroit to LA and was included on dozens of recordings from the label. "There are so many dates I can't remember them all," he admits. "Lots of Diana Ross recordings, lots of Jackson 5 when they were still the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Commodores, the Four Tops."

The hectic studio and touring pace continued in the '80s, best represented by his involvement with the Stones' 1981 tour and the subsequent Still Life live album and Let's Spend the Night Together tour film. But something was changing for Watts. About the time he started playing with Haden's Quartet West, he realized it was time to turn a page, to get involved in other things—and do even more playing.

While his association with Haden has kept him on the world stage, his own recordings of the past several years have earned him much praise as an individual performer, especially in Japan. While his early '80s releases from Quincy Jones' Qwest label have a certain crossover appeal, his JVC discs of the past decade—Reaching Up (with trumpeter Sandoval), The Long Road Home (with piano titan Kenny Barron), Unity (with the electric-acoustic double-bass team of Steve Swallow and Eddie Gomez) and the sultry Classic Moods—all document an impassioned style and a tenor tone that burrows into your brain. Add to this his 1991 collaboration with Brazilian Gilberto Gil, Afoxe, and a collaboration with fellow LA tenor players Pete Christlieb and Rickey Woodard titled The Tenor Trio, and it becomes clear that this man for all seasons has lately been intent on pursuing a more straight-ahead direction.

So what will the future bring from him? "I've been working so much with Charlie [Haden], whose music comes from such a melodically beautiful place, that I'm now interested in more melodic music," Watts says. "I've been working on some things like writing and studying, but I haven't decided what the project will be. It could be a duet to a larger ensemble. I'm thinking in terms of operatic arias for the saxophone."

Operatic arias? For Watts, it seems, the fat lady will never sing.

Ernie Watts performs with the Jon Mayer Trio at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800. Fri., 8:30 p.m. $5. All ages.
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