- Unity
Ernie Watts
(c) 1995 JVC (JVC-2046-2)

I glance through the press materials I've gotten with Watts' latest effort, Unity. I see that his last CD, Reaching Up, is sitting ahora, rat new, at the top of jazz magazine New Music Report (and been there five weeks!).

I've got a copy of the CD in my hands, but that ain't the one I'm supposed to comment on. I get the Unity tape and put it on. At first I think perhaps my children left the volume up too high, like they do, with Snoop and them, but then coming in to adjust it, I dig that it is not so much the electrical volume that is turning my head, but the musicians' sound! It is a prepossessing broad deep heavy tenor, yet altoish - dig - it did put me in mind sometimes of Ernie Henry or Jackie Mc - that penetration of the notes, like, ready or not, they are trying to blow through you.

The first side, "You Say You Care," one of the last Jule Styne's sweet up ballads that Trane gave new life to, Ernie Watts deftly picks up and in that tradition keeps it moving in blue orbit. The while deepness of this man's sound washes around us. It digs and get in us to swing us.

Whether he is playing a gentle ballad or medium cooker, the syncopated keening timbres of his horn, tenor heavy but it would seem always seeking the higher register of the sound (in a way like Trane often did) command our dig/tionary, get next to us, as Sterling Brown said about Ma Rainey, she just "gets a hold of us that way."

This is the basic elemental of Watts' approach and style. The heavy registration of the unbridled cooking. Picked up Trane contemporary as well as the straight forward hot acceleration of the swing masters. Bean and Frog come to mind, but Watts is still turned around a different way. More literal and direct...

In addition, the jet flame propulsion of Jack DeJohnette's industrial ax rapping underneath, over top, side by side gives the whole date a walloping joyous momentum. Watts knows, as the most sophisticated performers, that to do anything you have to begin at the beginning, the musicians, especially in the improvised context of "the music." And he has a formidable circle of wailers here. Not only DeJohnette, who is already recognized by many as a young master, but he has gone into the very new and very hip stylist by getting pianist Geri Allen. One of the most imaginative and thoughtful of the new voices.

As an e.g., Brubeck's "Sweet Way," a pretty reflective narrative, one of his lovely signature pieces. Watts brings the big lyric drama, by which he folds the tune around him and so it emerges as one of his own hip vines. And Allen, here, as throughout the date, shows that the renewing spray of intelligence that characterizes her playing can already be included in "the mainstream" not in submission to it, but actually expanding it, with her lush rationales. Sister Fresh: discursive, lilting, building the meticulous answers her running musical questions propose.

Watts plays the notes. He also carries the story - like the Prezident said, he got his tale with him as he moves. It is a very hip rhythm section that is his wheels... DeJohnette, Allen, and Steve Swallow and Gomez, tight and flying. Recent and coming masters. So from the giddyup the ship is heart worthy.

Looking further into the notes I dig that Downbeat has Ernie Watts' Reaching Up as a number one jazz album as well, where have I been? And I play this album too, to get a better feel. Did those smoking Trane sides on it (tunes he did and put his handle on) "Mr. Syms," "I hear A Rhapsody," "You Leave Me Breathless." And another terrible group, Arturo Sandoval, trumpet, Mulgrew Miller, piano, Charles Fambrough, bass, and DeJohnette shoveling the coal.

Where's the man been? I know I know him. He is speaking in the most accessible language, yet he is not playing down. Pettiford's "Tricotism" is a vehicle for Steve Swallow's electric bass voice with Eddie Gomez making sure the vehicle keep going where it going. The freshness of the hook up is enlivening. The Swallow-Gomez tandem provides a lyricism as well as a rhythmic sensuousness with guitar/bass like duos. DeJohnette pointing out and pointing in, rapping bout where we going and where we been.

The way Ernie Watts deals, often his own music, not yet well known, he goes with, as well as the estimable contributions of his side wailers. On DeJohnette's "Silver Hollow" we hear Watts low down get down, Traneish, but Ernie-Moish. The rhythm can stretch all the way. Ernie Watts' hook up is the in and the out. The trend and the transcend. Ok, I can dig it now! We heard him with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. But in that tight ensemble, everybody and the music link up so organically, it's not really about solo life.

So Watts carries this new music fervor and experimental restatement of the verities. But he played with the Carson Tonight band for 20 years! That's another kind of openness, as well as another kind of discipline. We hear them both. And it is deeply gratifying, how he uses the new and the knew to get his own fat groove. Not just in the straight ahead excursions, but the more searching experimental adventures. He carries all of it in his big funksack. So the critical necessity of putting together a killer band, yet one that will go where he goes when he gone. Whether blues, sad and introspective, or the jet fire of aerodowness.

In this period when various "art music" traditions have stagnated ("avant," "out," "new music" etc.) and the latest wave of pop ("fusion") has wound up and almost away - it is this new initiative, and new dispensation, that we need and will seek. How to recombine what should never get separated in the farce place. The funk and the deep "other stuff," we have also thunk (you dig?) It's what makes the music live, what you see or hear, right away, and what you don't.

Ernie Watts, listen, can dig the momentary sweetness of the dough nut, but he also feels the eternal hipness of the whole. And digging Ernie Watts like this after his long labors in the vineyard, and understanding that he feels it's time, it's time, to get up, to stretch out, to say it! Let's me, us, peep something wonderful, that something is turning around again. Something else emerging, no matter what the dead keep saying we going out with them. Naw, I hear it, the lovely thing about Ernie Watts, the hip, deep feeling, is still with us, still here, hear?

Amiri Baraka, Newark, N.J. 2/9/95

Unity Cover

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 Track Listing
1. You Say You Care 5:09
2. In Your Own Sweet Way 5:11
3. Tricotism 6:58
4. Unity 4:58
5. Silver Hollow 7:02
6. Some Kind A Blue 5:01
7. Don't Look Now 6:48
8. Joyous Reunion 6:17
9. Lonely Hearts 5:52
10. Sticky Kisses 4:56
11. Soul Eyes 7:10
• Ernie Watts - Tenor Sax
• Geri Allen - Acoustic Piano
• Jack DeJohnette - Drums
• Eddie Gomez - Acoustic Bass
• Steve Swallow - Electric Bass