It’s day two of the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem in August. Jeff “Tain” Watts is dancing in the wings. He hears Camille Thurman sing “Skylark,” and he starts to sway. He holds out an arm ceremoniously to fellow drummer Johnathan Blake, due to play with Dr. Lonnie Smith in a couple of hours. Blake and Watts proceed to link arms, twirl, break away and spin, perfectly nonchalant. Watts’ good cheer is infectious, heightening anticipation for the following set by his quintet with tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, guitarist Paul Bollenback, pianist David Budway and bassist Chris Smith. They’re here to play material from Blue, Vol. 1 and Blue, Vol. 2, Watts’ first solo releases since 2011, both on his Dark Key label.
When Watts takes the stage, he shouts out Harlem and mentions his time as a resident long ago, adding, “I haven’t appeared much here under my own name. That’ll change.”
A Pittsburgh native, Watts debuted as a leader in 1999 with Citizen Tain and has devoted more and more time to composing and bandleading ever since. (Megawatts, a 1991 trio session with Kenny Kirkland and bassist Charles Fambrough, was released as Watts’ debut without his authorization. Sunnyside reissued it in 2004, with Watts onboard.)
Before emerging as a leader, Watts proved to be one of the most consequential sidemen of the last 30 years, revamping and revitalizing the art of swing itself with Wynton Marsalis’ group from 1982 to ’88. His volatile, precise, poetic approach to the beat is seared onto the landmark Marsalis albums Think of One and Black Codes (From the Underground) , among others. These recordings are all the more crucial for documenting pianist Kenny Kirkland, the dearly missed “Doctone,” Watts’ musical soulmate, bestower of the nickname “Tain.” (While on tour, Kirkland spotted a road sign for Chieftain Gas and somehow came up with “Jefftain.”)
Together Watts and Kirkland went on to form a much longer association with Branford Marsalis; Watts played both quartet and trio with the celebrated saxophonist, staying another decade after Kirkland’s tragic death in November 1998. Along the way Watts gained three years’ experience with Marsalis and Kirkland in the house band for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and amassed sideman credits with Kenny Garrett, Michael Brecker, McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane, among others. When he finally left Branford’s group in 2009 and yielded his chair to the young and worthy Justin Faulkner, it seemed to signal a decisive career shift. “It was time,” says Watts.
Although Watts is still busy with Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, saxophonist Yosvany Terry and others, he’s on an independent streak. He’s giving free rein to his virtuosity, eclecticism, devious humor and, now and then, even his singing; his vocal alter ego is Juan Tainish, an inversion of “Tainish one.” (“I don’t trust him,” Watts says.) He’s also hiring new players, breaking them in as they strengthen his music in turn: Troy Roberts, Chris Smith, pianist James Francies, bassist Orlando Le Fleming and more. “So many roads that I’ve looked down, they invariably lead me back to Africa in some kind of way,” Watts remarks, sizing up his calling as a drummer-leader in the footsteps of jazz masters Elvin Jones and Tony Williams but also nourished by fusion, rock, R&B and classical music.
At 55, Watts has also entered a new phase personally, and it might explain his joyful demeanor offstage: He left Brooklyn in 2013 after 25 years and relocated to Easton, Pa., with his wife, pocket trumpeter and vibraphonist Laura Watts (formerly Kahle). Their twin daughters, Isis and Jelena, are almost 5.
Dominating a quiet residential block, the Watts family home was once St. Peter’s Fifth Lutheran Church, a weathered but impressive red brick structure built in the 1870s. The pews are intact, the stained glass is vibrant and the raised stage is ample, perfect for recording and rehearsal. (One pew is filled with over a dozen snare drums, aligned like congregants.) There are additional soundproofed booths downstairs, installed by a previous owner. There’s an adjoining house, the old rectory, with living space to spare. There’s even a vegetable and herb garden. Watts recorded both volumes of Blue here, in “The Sanctuary.” Musicians love making the journey. “I took a break after Family,” Watts says, referring to his 2011 quartet date with alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist David Kikoski and bassist James Genus. “I got the family going, and my mom passed away in between. The whole series [Blue] is dedicated to her.” (...) (David R. Adler)