Ernie Watts is one of our greatest living saxophonists. Certainly two-time Grammy winner. Watts has a uniquely versatile resume, having played with artists ranging from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa with the Buddy Rich’s Big Band, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, Oliver Nelson’s Orchestra, Gerald Wilson’s Orchestra, Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band, interspersed with touring with the Rolling Stones and Pat Metheny as well as recording with Marvin Gaye. That’s just some of it. Watts is a versatile player too, using all three saxophones on many of his recordings as he does here on Home Light, leading his Quartet that’s been together for 18 years. Watts, with his blues and Coltrane influences can reach deep emotional spots, not unlike his West Coast peers Charles Lloyd and Azar Lawrence.
This is Watts’ 24th album as a leader and the ninth on his Flying Dolphin label which he and his wife started in 2004. As such he and pianist Christof Saenger, bassist Rudi Engel, and drummer Heinrich Koebberling have complete freedom to do what they want – in this case mostly post-bop fare composed by Watts, a band member, or close friend. Ernie indicates that each album is different, and the close-knit nature of the group easily lends itself to both exploration and fun. And, they’re prolific too, producing an album on almost an annual basis.
This is how his storied journey evolved. Watts started playing saxophone at age 13 in Wilmington, Delaware. 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.
Watts was fortunate enough to be referred to Buddy Rich’s Big Band by a Berklee professor, staying with that band from 1966-68. Next, Watts moved to Los Angeles and began working in the big bands of Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson. Watts had the occasion to record with the legendary Thelonious Monk on Monk’s Blues while working with Nelson. During the 1970s and ’80s, Watts’ signature sound was heard on countless TV shows (most notably The Tonight Show) and movie scores, almost all the early West Coast Motown sessions, and with pop stars such as Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, and Marvin Gaye. Yet, Watts’ passion for acoustic jazz never left him and in the mid-eighties he turned exclusively to jazz. You can learn much more by visiting his website-www.erniewatts.com
Home Light offers nine selections of totally acoustic jazz, wherein Watts solos on all three saxophones , playing more than one on some tunes. Of course, his communal philosophy gives plenty of space for the other quartet members, especially pianist Saenger. It’s mostly swinging, powerful and uplifting music which at times is humorous too such as the Ornette-like energy in the alto-driven bebop tribute “Frequie Flyers.” The opener “I Forgot August” is built on the harmonic structure of the standard “I’ll Remember April.” “Horizon” is a contemplative ballad, showcasing Watts’ full-bodied tone. The gospel-like title track is dedicated to famed drummer Ndugu Chancler. Those tunes were all composed by Watts.
The remembrance to Joe Henderson, entitled “Joe,” was composed by trumpeter Brad Goode and “Distant Friends,” where Watts is on soprano, was composed by pianist Otmaro Ruiz. Koebberling contributed “Café Central 2 AM” while Saenger composed “Spinning Wheel.” Finally, “O.P” was written by Sam Jones for his mentor Oscar Pettiford.
The Ernie Watts Quartet delivers no holds barred, free swinging pure acoustic jazz. Dig in and enjoy. This is as good at gets. Watts has flawless technique, tone, and feel – developed over a fifty year career that shows no signs of slowing down.
- Jim Hynes