Watts pays tribute to those who inspired him

Boston Globe, May 27, 2007

Drummers are rarely bandleaders in jazz, mainly for the simple reason that they are too busy drumming; the best ones are in high demand and therefore overextended, or end up tightly identified with a particular leader’s group and channel their creative energy there. Historic exceptions apply, of course, such as Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers was for decades a proving ground for new talent. By and large, though, the drummer works the background. So it’s a treat when one of the day’s top drummers assembles a group and marks it with his or her distinct vision and personality, particularly when it’s Jeff “Tain” Watts, who possesses an abundance of both.

Watts, who visits Scullers on Thursday with young saxophonist Marcus Strickland and first-call pianist David Kikoski, has been a familiar figure in jazz since the 1980s “young lions” revival, in which he took part as the drummer in Wynton Marsalis’s band. He later played with saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and also served on what he’s referred to as the “plantation” of the “Tonight Show” house band. Lest these associations seem to peg him too narrowly, consider that Watts frequently played with the late Alice Coltrane – he took part in her memorial service-cum-concert in New York last week – and has worked at pretty much every point in between on the neotraditional-to-far-out spectrum.

Watts is also familiar for his upbeat personality, which manifests in his physiognomy: A very youthful 47, he has a big, round face with a mischievous air and one of jazz’s more recognizable smiles. Most important, though, he’s a tremendous stylist on the snares and cymbals, a propulsive drummer who can build infinite rhythmic complexity, revealing unsuspected internal layers of a tune while never overwhelming a group’s front line.

Watts’s new endeavor as a leader is a playful sortie under the name Tain & the Ebonix. It includes Strickland, Kikoski, and bassist Christian McBride. The group’s album is called “Folk’s Songs.” With a drummer’s typical generosity, Watts wrote each piece in honor of a friend or inspiration. These range from Branford Marsalis, whom Watts calls a “brother from another mother,” to comedian Dave Chappelle to the late Curtis Mayfield.

On the phone from his home in New York, Watts says he didn’t set out to make an album of dedications per se. “It’s really just a collection of compositions,” he says. “It’s like feeling around in the dark, that’s what works for me. The best thing I can do for a tune is to let it go wherever it goes.”

In most cases, Watts says, he figured out the song’s honoree midway through the writing. “SAMO,” for instance, is dedicated to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom Watts discovered through the Julian Schnabel biopic of the downtown artist. “When I was writing the song, thinking about it, it just moved to Basquiat, the early 1980s in New York City, without me even realizing it,” Watts says.

“Blues for Curtis,” a groovy number that also features David Gilmore on guitar, settled on Mayfield as its inspiration in a similarly organic manner: “I was messing around with the melody and Curtis’s vibe popped in,” Watts says. There’s also a beautiful midtempo ballad, “Laura Elizabeth,” for Watts’s girlfriend, trumpeter Laura Kahle; and a hymn, “Galilee,” for late pianist James Williams.

Watts also offers a composition by Keith Jarrett called “Rotation.” He develops it here in two parts, at different points in the album, and dedicates this treatment to the great saxophonist Dewey Redman, who died last year.

In all, “Folk’s Songs” is a limber album that reflects its leader’s self-assuredly eclectic tendencies. On one song, he even sings, a vocal performance of at best moderate accomplishment that is credited in the album notes to a certain “Juan Tainish.”

The deployment of a somewhat ridiculous alter ego underscores that Watts, for all his chops and immense jazz resume, runs no risk of forgetting that music is supposed to be fun. “Juan Tainish” has his own MySpace page; his prize possession, Watts says, is an old El Camino. “It’s up on blocks in the backyard. It doesn’t have tires, but it has rims, so he’s happy.”

The parallel identity also serves the tactical purpose of giving Watts a space in which to experiment with the unfamiliar, like singing. “He’s an OK singer,” Watts says of his alter ego, his tone suggesting the opposite. “He knows what I’m thinking, but I don’t completely trust him. He’ll be hanging out. He’s taking some vocal lessons.”

That loose, experimental vibe is also what Watts wants to carry forward with the Ebonix band, which he envisions as a project with changing personnel and no limits on style.

“Eventually it’ll be a wide array of musicians of whatever genre,” he says. “That’s what the Ebonix is about.” He says some tracks will be given electric remixes, to broaden the palette further. “Everything will open up a lot more. The Ebonix thing is a place where just about anything can happen.”