The rapturous response for Charlie Haden’s Quartet West at the Lobero Theatre last November was in no small part due to the playing of saxophonist Ernie Watts. Since joining the Quartet West when it formed in 1987, Watts has made it clear that he belongs in the elite category of major jazz saxophonists alongside big names like Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins. He carves up the changes and rides the rhythm section with the best of them, bringing a soulful, bluesy tinge to the full range of post-bop, post-Coltrane sax techniques.
Empowered by his new-found higher profile as a soloist, Watts has developed not one, but two acoustic groups under his own name, one based in the United States, the other in Europe. The U.S. group, which released the CD Spirit Song in 2005, will be at SOhO on Monday, August 20. I recently spoke with Watts from his home in Cambria.
What group will you bring to Santa Barbara? This is the Spirit Song group, my American group. That’s David Witham, piano; Bruce Lett, bass; and Bob Leatherbarrow, drums. I have alternating projects now that require a couple of different bands, one based in Germany, the other here in California.
I understand you plan to record this group live at the Jazz Bakery this month. Are you doing anything special to prepare for that? I still have writing to do for that. I am writing a lot right now to finish that up. It’s going to be almost all new music, original tunes.
How would you describe the music you play in your groups? The music is all acoustic, a modern jazz quartet. Energy-wise it comes from my heroes-John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins. But musically, these groups both represent my compositions and vision.
How does the music you are making now express your identity? For my whole career, the music in my head was the music I grew up with-records like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, and bands like the classic John Coltrane quartet with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. That’s where I was at personally, and that’s the music I felt closest to. But to make a living, I became involved with pop, and I ended up playing on some pretty successful pop records [everything from the soundtrack of Grease to Steely Dan to Frank Zappa]. But this other music was always still in my head, and now that I am a little older, suddenly there are a lot of opportunities for me to get it out there. : What’s interesting about it in relation to my identity is that all the experiences that came between-all the studio time, my work with The Tonight Show band-is all really valuable to me now because I feel it makes my concept deeper; the time I spent playing pop actually deepens the way I play jazz.
Is it a good time for jazz music right now? I think it’s a great time for jazz. I travel a lot, to Europe for the festivals, but also to Asia : and what I see is a really strong interest worldwide, and an amazing variety of music being appreciated. What’s accepted as jazz by fans has broadened to include so many kinds of great music. That’s what encourages me the most about jazz today. And you know, whether the music is acoustic or electric, and no matter what tradition it comes out of, there’s always improvisation at the heart, and that’s why jazz is so fertile, because the people who play it have to communicate with one another and be present. Otherwise you can’t improvise.
What motivated you to form your Flying Dolphin record label? It’s three years now that we’ve been doing Flying Dolphin. We just finally figured that we could do it all ourselves. : Now we are preparing to record live in Los Angeles, during three nights at the Jazz Bakery at the end of August. Right afterward, Patricia [Ernie’s wife] and I will get on a plane and go to Thailand, where I am playing two weeks at the Sheraton Bangkok. At night I will play the gigs, and during the day we will listen to all the recordings made in L.A. : We’ll program the release, and then go back to California for mixing and mastering.
That sounds great. You work very closely with your wife, Patricia. How is that? It’s a family affair with us. My wife is a great businessperson, and she really gets the music, so she makes a great partner. A few years ago, about the time when we decided to do this, we bought a little place up here in Cambria. We’re about half a mile from Moonstone Beach, and we love it.
Anything else you want to add? We are looking forward to playing Santa Barbara, and I promise: Sparks will fly.
Ernie Watts comes to SOhO (1221 State St.) on Monday, August 20, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for tickets and more information.