(c) Liberty/UA, Inc
World Pacific Jazz (ST-20155)
When Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were collaborating on their first classic recordings, Ernie Watts was not yet born. The new generation of jazz that was spawned by the bebop revolution led, in a long and direct line, to the evolution of such talents as are displayed by the extraordinarily gifted young leader and his sympathetic sidemen on this, the first Watts LP.
In Dizzy's and Bird's day, eminence in their field was hard come by, usually following a long period of apprenticeship as a sideman. Today, thanks to the rapidity of communications and the proliferation of LP discs, recognition is a goal substantially less difficult to achieve.
It should be added, however, that the 1969 crop of new stars includes a high percentage of performers whose formative years were devoted to extensive study rather than road travel. Among these academically qualified newcomers, Ernie Watts stands tall. In fact, Watts towers.
He was born on October 23, 1945, in Norfolk, Virginia. At the age of two he moved to Detroit, accompanied by his family. His interest in music grew slowly during his high school years, which were spent in Wilmington, Delaware where the Wattses planted roots in 1957.
He learned so fast that after a year of music studies in college he was able to reverse roles and become a music teacher in Wilmington. Then came an unexpected opportunity to continue expanding his knowledge: he was awarded a Down Beat magazine scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Berklee has provided more then its fair share of talent to name bands. Woody Herman and many other prominent leaders, eager to find a young, promising performer who is neither too jaded nor too wealthy to go out on the road, have turned to Berklee as a source.
It was during Ernie Watts’ second year of studies at Berklee that vacancy
in the Buddy Rich saxophone section led to Rich’s band manager calling
Phil Wilson, the distinguished trombone player who in recent years has been
best known as a professor at Berklee. Wilson recommended Ernie so highly that
the young student was persuaded to give up his studies in favor of some traveling
Joining the Rich band in the fall of 1966, Ernie remained until June of 1969, During that time his whip-sharp sound and endlessly inventive blowing style attracted the attention of everyone who heard the orchestra, both in person and on World Pacific Records. He was featured in the title number of the Big Swing Face LP (ST-20117), in Wack Wack on the same album, and in Group Shot and Away We Go on The New One! (ST-20126).
Having established himself with particular success in West Coast jazz circles,
Ernie settled in Los Angles after some 20 months as an itinerant sideman. He
found Hollywood immediately receptive and was soon catapulted into a variety
of jobs, including several appearances with big bands at Donte's. He was featured
with Louis Bellson, with the remarkable Oliver Nelson orchestra at the short-lived
Jazz Suite in Beverly Hills, with the Gerald Wilson band and Wayne Henderson's
During this period he was able to expand his facility on a variety of instruments. He derives pleasure from the opportunity to switch horns, displaying consistent facility on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones as well as flute and oboe.
Though Watts' most powerful influence clearly is John Coltrane, his identity
today was also shaped by many other musicians, some of whom he heard as a child.
Charlie Parker clearly made a profound impact on him as did several practitioners
of non-reed instruments, notably Miles Davis. He pays tribute to Charlie Mariano,
whose association with him at Berklee proved invaluable as his style began
to reach maturity.
Asked whether he prefers to play alto or tenor, Ernie will usually refer to whichever of the two he has not been playing for a while; he enjoys challenge and change. As this album went to the pressing plant, he was on a tour of ten African countries with a seven-piece group specially assembled by Oliver Nelson under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. Playing a break-in date at Donte's with this combo, he expressed pleasure at the fact that the job gave him a chance for an extensive workout on baritone.
For the present occasion, though, Ernie concentrates on the two horns with which he as been most closely associated. He plays alto on Going Home (based on a theme from Dvorak's New World symphony) and on his own composition Forth Dynasty. The other tracks feature him on tenor.
Working with producer Wayne Henderson, Ernie lined up a rhythm section capable of galvanizing him into intensive action. Pianist Clarence McDonald, born in Los Angeles in 1945, was first prominent with Chico Hamilton's combo, later working with Ray Charles and Lorez Alexandria. He was musical director for the 5th Dimension before being drafted in 1966. On return to the civilian scene in '68 he free-lanced around Los Angeles.
Stan Gilbert, from Bronx, New York, studied music in the Navy. He played bass with Les McCann's trio for a year, was featured for a while with Curtis Amy, and has worked with mentioned African Tour.
The material interpreted by these four compatible cookers is admirably balanced between tunes associated with other artists and new works composed by Ernie for the occasion. In the latter category Planet Love struck me as the most impressive, displaying his compositional and improvisational qualifications to stunning effect. The intensity of the performance is of all for men working together at their freest and wildest, Fourth Dynasty is consistently compelling. Boo, a minor, modal piece, has some highly declamatory Watts tenor, well-placed breaks by Stan Gilbert, and tremendous impetus generated throughout by Bob Morin.
Of the more familiar tunes, Black Is Beautiful stands out for its lyricism, Wichita Lineman for the bosa nova flavor. A surprisingly valid section was the Bacharach-David song Knowing When To Leave, from the score of Promises, Promises, to which Ernie adds a flavor reminiscent of Trane.
Going Home, the one number in the set that has been recorded many times before by jazz musicians, turns out to be a happy, high-flying vehicle for Ernie's alto work. Those unpredictable high notes sound less like screams than exclamation points following a well-constructed sentence. There's also a swinging and sometimes funky statement by Clarence McDonald.
To those of us who have been following Ernie Watts' brief professional career
since the Buddy Rich days, his initial album as a leader serves to reinforce
a conviction we have held since the first time we heard him. Here is one of
the truly important new soloists, a man who studied long and hard, has put
his studies to creative use, and will be a leading figure in the modern jazz
of the 1970's.
Liner notes by Leonard Feather