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  • 21st Century Dizzy: Danilo Perez and Friends
  • Angelique Kidjo
  • Ann Hampton Callaway
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  • Ernie Watts

     

    “The virtues we’ve come to associate with Watts include fertile harmonic imagination, a beautiful Trane-soaked-in-wine tone, the blowtorch cry, rippling cadenzas and the ability to swing at any tempo.”
Kirk Silsbee / LA CityBeat

     

    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 40 years, he has been featured on over 500 recordings by artists ranging from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa, always exhibiting his unforgettable trademark sound.

     

    After 15 solo records for a variety of labels, large and small, Watts started Flying Dolphin Records, a company he runs with his wife Patricia. Flying Dolphin (distributed by Burnside Distribution Corp.) is a new chapter for the artist’s creative expression. “Through my years of touring and recording, I’ve had the opportunity to perform in every kind of musical setting. I’ve reached a place in my life where I need to make music on my terms, and starting my own label provided me with a new sense of freedom.”

     

    “To The Point” (2008) his newest release, represents a snapshot of where Watts finds himself today. Recording live at The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, Watts guides his longtime quartet through a fire-of-the-moment journey in a set of original music (plus a cover of Tad Dameron’s composition “Hot House).” The group has been performing together for over 20 years, and the cohesion and musical empathy with each other is evident. “I’m at that point where I choose 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 the title track, which showcases his passionate improvisation. “To The Point,” “Season of Change,” and “Reaching Up” were written with his pianist David Witham. Another new composition, the noir-themed “Nightscape” (written by pianist Jon Mayer) sings with emotion. Whether it is a ballad or up-tempo number, Watts soars over airtight arrangements in the comfort of his own group. He contributes a blues to the collection “Road Shoes” defining the roots of jazz. “For Michael” is a poignant jazz waltz in memory of his friend Michael Brecker, written with drummer Bob Leatherbarrow. Bassist Bruce Lett, a solid anchor for the band, also contributes inventive, lyrical solos.

     

    Other releases in the Flying Dolphin catalog include “Analog Man” (2007) recorded with his European quartet, a cohesive group of outstanding players who have been touring together since 1999. “Spirit Song,”(2005) which preceded “Analog Man,” was Watts’ first studio recording as a leader since the release of “Classic Moods” (JVC) in 1999. The artist introduces the handmade wooden Spirit Flute on the title track, creating a haunting melody reprised on tenor. Flying Dolphin’s first release was Ernie Watts Quartet ALIVE (2004), recorded live in Germany. Throughout his long and fruitful career, Watts had not previously made a live recording of his own, capturing a stage performance with no editing or overdubs. The chance to hear the artist at immediate heat in the midst of his own music is a special occasion, only available before to his concert audiences. “To The Point” is now his second live recording. All Flying Dolphin releases are available at Watts’ concerts and the artist’s site www.erniewatts.com. (via CDBaby.com).

     

    Watts started playing saxophone at age 13. He went with 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 quit Buddy Rich’s Big Band in Boston, 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 (Columbia).

     

    During the 1970s and ‘80s, Watts was immersed in the busy production scene of Los Angeles. His 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 the chance 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 -- 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 over twenty years), and his body of work for the audiophile Japanese label JVC Music continued to demonstrate his talent for, and commitment to, jazz.

     

    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 with friend and fellow musician Ron Feuer. This 2003 duet release features serene ballads for saxophone and piano and exemplifies Watts’ fluid tone. He also recorded duet CDs with talented German pianist Christof Saenger for Laika Records, which now distributes Flying Dolphin in Germany.

     

    Watts’ eclectic mix of career activities includes current work with vocalist Kurt Elling in a tribute to Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane with string quartet. He has taken part in Jazz at the Kennedy Center for Billy Taylor, and recently toured Australia with Billy Cobham and orchestra.” 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, often with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. He gives back to the music by conducting student clinics and master classes. Watts has also 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.

     

    The joy he found in jazz as a youth, now enriched by experience, still is his today. Watts sums it up; “I see music as the common bond having potential to bring all people together n peace and harmony. All things in the physical world have vibration; the music I choose to play is the energy vibration that touches a common bond in people. I believe that music is God singing through me, an energy to be used for good.”

     

     
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