"He is one of the greatest living
tenor saxophonists, at the top of his game."
Ian Patterson / All About Jazz
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
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
ERNIE WATTS PLAYS KEILWERTH SAXOPHONES EXCLUSIVELY,
PETER PONZOL SYNTHETIC REEDS ON TENOR, AND
D'ADDARIO JAZZ SELECT REEDS ON ALTO AND SOPRANO.
Personal Management: BATES MEYER, INC.
Phone: 909-547-0504 / Fax: 909-547-0901