Before & After: Jeff “Tain” Watts

Here’s a B&A with Jeff “Tain” Watts done for JazzTimes at the end of 2004.


Drummer, composer and bandleader Jeff “Tain” Watts was born in Pittsburgh, a city that also produced drumming legends Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey. The young Watts established his reputation as part of the generation of young lions that emerged in the 1980s. After working and recording in the bands of both Marsalis brothers, Watts toured with McCoy Tyner and George Benson, played on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, and portrayed a drummer in Lee’s jazz film Mo’ Better Blues. Watts moved to Los Angeles to play in the Tonight Show band with Branford Marsalis, but quit when Marsalis left the show in the mid-90’s. Today, he’s much in demand with his own group, and he has also recorded with Sonny Rollins, Terence Blanchard, Geri Allen, Betty Carter, Ellis Marsalis, and Claudia Acuña.

I  met up with Watts on a cold February afternoon before his engagement at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. He sat in for this session with open ears and a plate of ginger scones.

1. Terri Lyne Carrington

“Journey of Now” (from Jazz Is a Spirit, ACT). Recorded in 2001. Carrington, drums; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bob Hurst, bass; Jeff Richman, guitar; Greg Kurstin, piano; Darryl “Munyungo” Jackson, percussion.

BEFORE: I like it. It’s an Afro-Cuban Latin-jazz vibe. The rhythm sounds pretty traditional; West African, Yoruba-based. The trumpet player obviously loves Miles Davis, and Wallace Roney comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s him. It’s a vibe-the melody is just an excuse to get into this mode over the rhythm. It’s not trying to be like rocket science or anything. It was cool. I’d like to check out more of that.

AFTER: Oh cool! O.K. That’s kind of slick, then. I love Terri, she‘s kind of like my sister. She comes from a very traditional jazz background and she’s always maintained that standard and musicality, that ability to go into something very straight ahead and really deal with it. But then she made a conscious effort in the mid 1980s to embrace everything so that she wouldn’t be stuck in a bag. I love her personally, and musically she’s always stayed really open.  That’s cool. That’s very cool. Go ahead, Terri.

2. Arthur Taylor

“Dacor” (from Taylor’s Tenors, New Jazz/Original Jazz Classics/Fantasy). Recorded in 1959. Taylor, drums; Charlie Rouse, Frank Foster, tenor saxophones; Walter Davis, Jr., piano; Sam Jones, bass.

BEFORE: Are there only two tenor players on this? Man, at first I was thinking Johnny Griffin or Hank Mobley or somebody like that. But then parts of it reminded me of Charlie Rouse too, for some reason. The tune is based on “Get Happy.” Sounds like something on Blue Note around 1959. Yeah, it sounds like Philly Joe, though it‘s not as loose as Philly Joe. Maybe that’s Louis Hayes? That‘s not Art Taylor, is it? Kenny Washington in a time machine? [laughter]

AFTER: Oh wow! The cymbal beat made me think of Art Taylor. The cymbal sound is a little crystally. His sound on the drums is a little more like Philly Joe, but his cymbal beat is more like Max or Kenny Clarke. It doesn’t sound loose enough to be Philly Joe. Philly Joe had this loose thing that was completely in control but almost like falling apart. Like knocking stuff off of a table. It was just so silly. Like him. But I miss AT. He was really cool, and I’m sure that’s one reason why people liked to work with him. He sounds great on this, and I think at the time of his death he was doing some of his greatest playing.

3. Jacky Terrasson

“Isn’t She Lovely” (from Smile, Blue Note). Recorded in 2002. Terrason, piano; Sean Smith, acoustic bass; Remi Vignolo, electric bass; Eric Harland, drums.

BEFORE: [immediately] I know what this is. I bought this record. [chuckles] It’s like a humorous reading, and with the subject matter and source material, it’s cool. The beat is in-between the James Brown beat and a kind of drum ‘n bass chatter.

Is it fun to play that kind of beat?

JW: Yeah, I think it is. It’s groove-based but you can still improvise within it. It’s almost like a clave that you resolve back into, but you’re free to move away from it. How’s he distorting the piano like that? Sounds like he put some papers on the strings, which is kind of cute. He plays the melody and then kind of plays on a sound, not really playing the form. Then he cues the bridge and other material in the piece. Yeah, this record’s cute. I bought this in Japan about a month ago. Jacky’s pretty thorough. I need to play with him to really feel his beat, though. That’ll be interesting. I like Eric Harland’s approach. He has a good modern thing going on, especially with soloing and the way he plays time. He’s putting something together. It’s clear where he’s going, but I’m sure he’ll agree that it’ll take him a few years to round out the concept that he’s working on. It’s an extension of modern drummers, like Jack and Elvin, and maybe even myself. He can be a very intense player but he can also be delicate. He can play loose and free, but at the same time he can also lay down a very convincing beat for funk or hip hop and stuff like that. He can go different ways.

4. Baby Laurence

“Baby At Birdland” (from Special Tap Dance, Black & Blue). Recorded in 1959. Laurence, tap dance; Paul Quinichette, tenor sax; Nat Pierce, piano; Al Hall, bass; Skeeter Best, bass; Osie Johnson, drums.

BEFORE: [intense listening to the tap dancer] It’s really, really swinging. [big laugh at tag ending] I love that. I would like to have that, actually. That’s really cool. First of all, it was swinging hard. That was deep. It feels kind of old school. Tenor player heard Pres, though it’s not Pres. It’s really, really, really, really interesting. Just swinging brushes, and the guitar was cute. I really don’t know what the dancer was doing. He’s like another instrument, but then the musicians can get something from watching him. It’s a nice organic thing. The palette of tones is different for a dancer than a drummer. He has to rely more on articulation. He stamps on the floor to get the effect of a bass drum. That guy was making music with his feet. On the drums you’re trying to make it dance anyway. That’s just really cool.

AFTER: Ahhh! I read about drummers who said they watched him and played with him. I love Osie Johnson. He’s just what you need. Nothing fancy, just really swinging. Thanks for playing this for me. That was really cool.

5. Matt Wilson

“Free Willy” (from Humidity, Palmetto). Recorded in 2002. Wilson, drums; Jeff Lederer, tenor sax; Andrew D’Angelo, alto sax; Yosuke Inoue, bass.

BEFORE: That was cute [laughter]. I enjoyed that. Sounds like the tune was based on “Scrapple From The Apple.” Maybe it was the bass player’s group? He made sure they slowed the tempo down for his solo. The Ornette influence is obvious. Blackwell came to mind, but it’s not Blackwell. For some reason I started thinking about Eddie Moore or Paul Motian, or somebody like that. I’m not sure who that was but it’s from that tree. During the slower tempo it was swinging with a real nice beat. It sounds like someone I should know. Is this a working group?

AFTER: Oh cool. Good for Matt. I first saw him with Dewey, so that’s the connection. I don’t know these horn players but they sounded cool. It was loose and together at the same time. Yeah, he’s doing his thing.

6. Booker Ervin

“Grant’s Stand” (from The Freedom Book, Prestige). Recorded in 1963. Ervin, tenor sax; Jaki Byard, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Alan Dawson, drums.

BEFORE: I’m focused on the drums and going through cats in my mind. It’s somebody different, somebody like Clifford Jarvis, or somebody with a traditional thing but with a different kind of independence. The horn player I don’t know. I’m still stuck on the drums. The things he’s playing with his left hand is kind of different. That could be Higgins, but… [listens more] This drummer is colorful. He’s got nice independence and a strong ride which lets him play different things while keeping the time really cool. It’s controlled and sprawling at the same time. Is the bass player Richard Davis? It sounds like the way he solos over certain changes. [after the drum breaks] Wow, this is going to be someone I know and love but I can’t get that. It’s refreshing.

AFTER: Ahhh! I see. Yeah, Alan Dawson, that completely explains the independence.  That’s his thing. It’s musical and he’s really in control of the drums and he was a great teacher. I took two lessons from him so I owe him something. I learned stuff from him about the rudiments. There’s pages of exercises that he gave me that I still have and need to work on. He made his students really care about the drums, and he also encouraged diligence and discipline, which gave us the freedom to interpret the music. Tony Williams got a lot of stuff from him. And Gene Jackson. Billy Kilson is a serious devotee of Alan. He may have been overlooked because he stayed in Boston and taught, but drummers know about him. I’m going to have to investigate this group.

7. Chick Webb

“Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie” (from Black Legends of Jazz, Decca Jazz). Recorded in 1937. Chick Webb and his Orchestra.

BEFORE: That’s some of that good old early jazz. Tight group, good soloists. Cool arrangement. The drummer is obviously wicked. I thought about Chick Webb’s band, but I haven’t listened to him enough to say that’s who that is.

AFTER: Yeah, he really swung the band and was a great musician. It’s not about just playing a whole bunch of stuff just because you can. That tune showed how someone can be a virtuoso and still be in the service of music at the same time. Great.

8. Roy Haynes

“Roy Haynes Solo” (from A Great Night In Harlem, Concord/Playboy Jazz). Recorded in 2001. Haynes, drums.

BEFORE: I can see the body language of the drummer. I’m feelin’ Roy Haynes.

AFTER: If you hear somebody other than Tony Williams play a floor tom and an open hi-hat like that at the same time, there’s a very good chance it’s Roy Haynes. And all the little chattery stuff between the hi-hat and the drums, those are little figures that say Roy Haynes. He’s got a certain thing.

Why should young drummers check him out?

JW: If they don’t they’ll be missing something that’ll change their life. It’d be kind of stupid for them not to check him out. It’s really ridiculous for somebody in their 70’s to play like that, to play better than ever, you know? He’s a very cool man, very funny. He’s very sharp; a sharp dresser, a sharp drummer. He’s just a sharp dude. Some of my favorite Roy Haynes’ records? We Three, everybody has a soft spot for that, there’s some cute stuff on there.  There are the records with Eric Dolphy: Outward Bound and Far Cry. And there’s a drum solo on the Andrew Hill record Black Fire that’s really, really amazing. I still have no idea how he did what he did on that. I have not a clue. I’m not the biggest transcriber in the world but I would like to know what that is. I think the tune is called “Subterfuge.”

Do you think people are transcribing your records?

JW: Unfortunately [much laughter]. They’ll learn, then they’ll move on to something else [laughter].

9. The Bad Plus

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (from These Are The Vistas, Columbia). Recorded in 2002. Reid Anderson, bass; Ethan Iverson, piano; David King, drums.

BEFORE: [enthusiastically] Ahhh, this is cool. My tenor player Marcus Strickland just played this for me yesterday when we were driving down here. I don’t know any of these guys. Yeah, this is a Nirvana tune [sings along with a funny Curt Cobain imitation]. You can stop it, it’s cool.

AFTER: The main thing I got from this when we listened to it yesterday is that they’re really playing together. A lot of people who are traditionally minded can pick it apart. It’s not some super swinging stuff, I mean it’ll never be confused with Monk, or whatever. But the cats are playing together, and the thing I like about it, in addition to the interplay, is that it’s cool. It’s good, and it’s personal and they have a sound. Also, the sound of the recording affects things so much, you know. It gives it that spatial thing. Like, if this was a dry recording I don’t think it would come off at all. I think the sound of it makes it happen.

LA: Is it a matter of just adding reverb?

JW: I don’t know. It just sounds like they’re in a big room and they were hearing that sound when they were playing. Yeah, I enjoyed it. What’s the name of that group? Let me see it. Bad Plus is cool, there’s room for that. Some people are saying this is the future of jazz. Not really, but it’s cool. I have to hear the rest of this. Maybe somebody will hear this and say piano trios are cool. Maybe then they’ll try that Monk guy, or Keith Jarrett or whatever. There may be some kind of backlash to this kind of thing, but it’s not really a threat or anything. Jazz will not be deterred. We still have some legendary figures around like Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, or Elvin Jones that you can go and see and say “wow, that’s really how it’s supposed to be.” And you have musicians like Christian McBride who would be a great player in any era.

And where do you fit into all this?

JW: Sloppy Joe Jones! I can say I’ve managed to at least have a style and a voice. That’s all I can ask.

Your three favorite records of all time?

JW: John Coltrane, Crescent; Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsies, and Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington. No wait, substitute Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore.


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