Two-time Grammy Award winner Ernie Watts is one of the most versatile and prolific saxophone players on the music scene. In a diverse career that has spanned more than thirty years, he has been featured on more than 500 recordings by artists ranging from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa, always exhibiting his unforgettable trademark sound.
Spirit Song is Watts’ first studio recording as a leader since the release of Classic Moods in 1999. Surrounding himself with his touring quartet the artist had the opportunity to record with his musical family.
“I’ve been performing with these great players for over fourteen years and our long history brought a special synchronicity to these sessions,” says Watts. Spirit Song is the second release on Watts’ label Flying Dolphin Records. After 17 solo records for a variety of labels, large and small, Flying Dolphin begins a new chapter for his creative expression.
“I’ve been touring and recording for over 30 years in every kind of musical setting. I’ve reached a place in my life and career where I need to make music on my terms. Starting my own label with my wife Patricia provided me with a new sense of freedom.”
Prior to Spirit Song, Flying Dolphin released Ernie Watts Quartet Alive (2004), recorded live in Germany. Throughout his long and fruitful career, he has not previously made a live recording of his own, capturing a stage performance with no editing or overdubs. The chance to hear Watts at immediate heat in the midst of his own music is a special occasion, only available before to his concert audiences. Flying Dolphin releases are available through towerrecords.com, cdbaby.com and the artist’s site - erniewatts.com.
Watts started playing saxophone at age thirteen. He accompanied a friend who was enrolling in the local school music program and found himself carrying home an instrument as well. “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 in Delaware, where he studied classical music and technique. Though they had no jazz program, his mother provided the spark by giving him his own record player for Christmas and enrolling him in a record club. That first record club promotional selection 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 would enroll 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 left Buddy Rich’s Big Band, trombonist Phil Wilson (an educator at Berklee), was asked to recommend a replacement; a young Ernie Watts got the job. He left Berklee for that important spot, staying with Rich from 1966-1968 and touring the world.
Watts then moved to Los Angeles and began working in the big bands of Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson. With the Nelson band, Watts visited Africa on a U.S. State Department tour in 1969. They played in Chad, Niger, Mali, Senegal, and the Republic of the Congo, which included the opportunity to meet and jam with the local African musicians. Remembering the experience, Watts recalls Africa as “a timeless land.”
“It was amazing to play a government sponsored concert in the evening, then take a walk the next morning and see a camel caravan coming in from the desert, laden with giant salt blocks. That had been happening for thousands of years! Walking out into the desert at night, I felt the tremendous quiet there, something I had never experienced before, or since.”
It was also with Oliver Nelson that Watts had the occasion to record with the legendary Thelonious Monk on Monk’s Blues. During the 1970s and ‘80s, Watts was immersed in the busy production scene of Los Angeles. Watts’ 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 Aretha Franklin and Steely Dan. Though the pop music genre placed narrow confines on his performance, the studio sessions allowed Watts to constantly hone and refine his tone. 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 entitled “Nightbird” for Watts. At the work’s inaugural performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, 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’ tour with Metheny’s group in the late 1980s found him on a triple bill with Sun Ra and the Miles Davis Band (on Davis’ final tour), a turning point for the artist.
“The serious energy of Pat’s music convinced me to make the commitment to this level of performance. Every night I also absorbed Sun Ra and Miles and could not deny the power I was feeling in the music.”
Watts’ charter membership in Haden’s critically acclaimed Quartet West, (with whom he has toured and recorded for nearly twenty years), and his body of work for the audiophile Japanese label JVC Music continued to demonstrate his talent and commitment to the jazz world. His four recordings for JVC Music are some of the finest of his extensive career. For these projects, he surrounded himself with several of his favorite players; Jack DeJohnette, Arturo Sandoval, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller, Eddie Gomez, Jimmy Cobb, and Marc Whitfield. The music encompassed both jazz classics and new pieces by Watts. Between his stint with JVC and starting his own label Flying Dolphin, Watts recorded Reflections, a side-project with friend and fellow musician Ron Feuer. This 2003 duet release features serene ballads for saxophone and piano and exemplifies Watts’ fluid tone.
Watts’ eclectic mix of career activities has included Jazz at the Kennedy Center for Billy Taylor, as well as touring with Gene Harris and appearing on his last recording, Alley Cats (live at the Jazz Alley in Seattle). In 2004 he took part in a musical reunion with old friend Lee Ritenour, as a member of the all-star band for Ritenour’s recent DVD release OverTime.
A typical year finds Watts touring Europe with his own quartet, in Asia as a featured guest artist and performing at summer festivals throughout North America and Europe. A skilled educator, he continues his commitment to music education by conducting student workshops and has compiled a collection of orchestral arrangements for guest soloist appearances with symphonies. And there is the occasional “hometown gig” with the Ernie Watts Quartet in Los Angeles, where he is still based.
Featuring pianist David Witham, bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Bob Leatherbarrow, To the Point (2008) was recorded live at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. The CD is a very personal statement by Ernie as he guides his long time quartet through a fire-of-the-moment journey in a set of original music and a cover of Tadd Dameron’s classic “Hot House.” The quartet has been together for over 20 years and this is the first time they have recorded live together on stage. The cohesion and musical empathy is all on display here.
‘‘I’m at that point where I need to play the music that matters to me, with the people that matter to me,’’ says Watts. And indeed the point is made clear on this recording, which features his ‘‘Trane soaked in wine’’ tone and unbridled improvisation throughout.
“I’m at a place in my life where I make music on my terms, which gives me a new sense of freedom,’’ says Watts.
That freedom is readily heard on Four plus Four, a collection of new Watts’ material that features both his U.S. and European quartets. By joining his varied musical partners into a single vision, Watts inspires his friends to meld performances that adhere to the artist’s musical story.
‘‘Those classic Coltrane quartet recordings are at the heart of my writing.’’ The Koln sessions start with Watts’ rhythmic “Tributary” and the impressionistic “Crossings.” The players then follow Watts into his introspective waltz “A Quiet Corner” and on to Watts’ travelogue “Through My Window.” The LA musicians complete the CD with two more originals, “Wings of the Dreamer” and the dynamic “Find The Way,” plus a moving interpretation of the only cover, “The Ballad of The Sad Young Men.”
Music has been an oasis for Ernie Watts his whole life, ever since he first picked up a horn over fifty years ago. Since he and his wife started Flying Dolphin in 2004, his oasis has grown even deeper. Oasis (2011), recorded in Germany, has music from many sources: three compositions from Watts himself: lingering “Twilight Waltz,” joyful “Bass Geige” (colloquial German for ‘upright bass,’) and title track “Oasis.” Energetic samba “Palmito” is by pianist Christof Saenger, and intricate “Konbanwa” from drummer Heinrich Koebberling. A bebop classic, “Shaw Nuff” is by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; the soaring ballad “You Are There” comes from Johnny Mandel and Dave Frishberg, and “One Day I’ll Fly Away” (made famous in Moulin Rouge) from Joe Sample and Will Jennings. Also included is the Lennon/McCartney tune “Blackbird,” and “Crescent” by Ernie’s major inspiration John Coltrane, each tune with a Watts interpretation and his superlative sound, as well as a band that unites as one. This Oasis is wide as well as deep.
Watts sums it up; “I see music as the common bond having potential to bring all people together in peace and harmony. All things in the physical world have vibration; the music I choose to play is the energy vibration that touches the common bond in people. I believe that music is God singing through me - an energy to be used for good.”