Two-time Grammy Award winner Ernie Watts is one of the most versatile and prolific saxophone players in music. It has been more than fifty years since he first picked up a saxophone, and from age sixteen on he has been playing professionally, initially while still attending school. Watts has been featured on over 500 recordings by artists ranging from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa, always exhibiting his unforgettable trademark sound. In 2014, Watts received the prestigious Frankfurt Music Prize given by the city of Frankfurt, Germany. It is presented to both classical and non-classical musicians. Of the 32 current winners, only 6 have been jazz musicians. Per the Frankfurt Music Prize Foundation, Watts was “selected for his strikingly melodic saxophone style and his original tone language, with which he has already enriched several generations of musicians. “Previous jazz honorees include Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera, and John McLaughlin. In 2015, Watts was selected as Guest of Honor at the Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado, and played on the Ernie Watts Main Stage with his own Quartet.
After 15 albums as a leader, for a variety of labels large and small, Watts started Flying Dolphin Records in 2004, in partnership with his wife Patricia. Flying Dolphin (distributed by City Hall Records in the US and Laika Records in Germany) is a new chapter for the artist’s creative expression. “Through my years of studio work, touring, and recording,” he says, “I’ve played in every kind of musical setting. I’ve reached a place in my life where I need to make music on my terms. Starting my own label provided me with a new sense of freedom.”
The current new release expressing this is Wheel Of Time (2016), with a wide choice of tempos and styles, from blues to calypso, waltz to post-bop, and a peaceful ballad. Lots of originals, four of which are from Watts, one of them “Wheel Of Time” itself, a lyrical piece in memory of Charlie Haden, his friend and bandleader in Quartet West for nearly 30 years. There is also a jazz classic by Joe Henderson, the powerful “Inner Urge.”
Other releases in the Flying Dolphin catalog include A Simple Truth (2014), highlighted by the exquisite “No Lonely Nights’ by Keith Jarrett, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop,” and the warm, singing title tune, by Watts; Oasis (2011), reflecting on Watts’ own personal oasis of music, with original pieces and a reference to John Coltrane, the original Watts muse, through the Coltrane piece “Crescent.” Four plus Four (2009) is a studio project with both the US and European Ernie Watts Quartets, recorded in Los Angeles and Cologne, Germany, including “Through My Window,” a Watts original written to showcase both quartets together. To The Point (2007) was made high-energy live with the Ernie Watts Quartet at The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. Analog Man (2006) is winner of the Independent Music Award for Best Jazz Album of 2007, with his European Quartet, touring together since 1999. Spirit Song (2005) was Watts’ first studio recording as a leader since the release of Classic Moods (JVC) in 1999. Watts used a handmade cedar Spirit Flute to introduce the title track, creating the haunting folk melody which is then reprised on tenor.
Flying Dolphin’s first release ALIVE (2004) was recorded live at the Backstage in Fulda, Germany. The chance to hear Watts at immediate heat in the midst of his own music had only been available before to his concert audiences. To The Point and ALIVE both vividly capture that live experience.
Watts started playing saxophone at age 13 in Wilmington, Delaware. He went with a friend who was joining the local school music program, and found himself carrying home an instrument too. “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 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 plus a record club membership, for Christmas. 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 (a professor at Berklee), was asked to recommend a student as temporary replacement. A young Ernie Watts was referred, and left Berklee for that important spot. The “student temporary” stayed with Rich from 1966-1968 and toured the world, also recording two albums with the band-Big Swing Face and The New One. Ernie says now, “I guess I got the job,” and laughs.
Next, Watts 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’ touring with Metheny’s group in the late 1980s was a turning point for him. “The serious energy of Pat’s music inspired me to choose work at this level of performance. Every night I listened to and rejoiced in the power I was feeling in the music.” Watts’ charter membership in Haden’s critically-acclaimed Quartet West, continued for almost 30 years until Haden’s death. Watts’ work for the audiophile Japanese label JVC Music, and now his growing catalog of original music for Flying Dolphin continue to express his joy in the power of 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 Los Angeles pianist Ron Feuer, a 2003 saxophone/piano duet project of lush ballads. He also recorded duet CDs Blue Topaz and Pa Chuly with acclaimed German pianist (and member of his European quartet) Christof Saenger for Laika Records.
Watts’ eclectic mix of career activities has included work with vocalist Kurt Elling in a tribute to Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, Dedicated To You, which won Elling his first Grammy Award, and concerts with the WDR Big Band Cologne in Germany, the Croatian Radio Television Jazz Orchestra in Zagreb and the National Radio Band of Slovenia, which played two of his compositions arranged for Watts by the celebrated Michael Abene. He has performed in Jazz at the Kennedy Center, in Australia with Billy Cobham and orchestra, and in 2016 with the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra in Los Angeles.
A typical year finds him touring Europe with his own European Quartet in spring and fall, and working as a feature artist with other artists he admires. One of these has been iconic South Indian violinist Dr. L Subramaniam, fusing Western classical music, jazz, Middle Eastern and Asian themes with Carnatic Indian tradition. Watts appears on the artist’s latest recording project “Beyond Borders,” which also features Herbie Hancock. Watts is now also starting to play with Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues, an amazing amalgam of blues harmonica (Corky), a tabla player, and a string quartet. The evocative voice of the Watts saxophone fits right in!
He gives back to the music by conducting clinics and master classes, both on the student and professional level. Watts has also compiled a collection of orchestral arrangements for guest soloist appearances with symphonies, such as the National Symphony of Costa Rica. Another recent experience has been in Siberia in 2015, with the Novosibirsk National Big Band. Finally, there is the occasional “hometown gig” with the Ernie Watts Quartet in California, where he is still based.
Summing it all up, Watts describes his ongoing journey: “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 a common bond in people. I believe that music is God singing through us, an energy to be used for good.”
ERNIE WATTS PLAYS KEILWERTH SAXOPHONES EXCLUSIVELY,
PETER PONZOL SYNTHETIC REEDS ON TENOR, AND
D’ADDARIO JAZZ SELECT REEDS ON ALTO AND SOPRANO.