Jeff “Tain” Watts: The Reign of “Tain”

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Jeff "Tain" Watts
By Jimmy Katz
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Jeff “Tain” Watts
By Jimmy Katz
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Jeff “Tain” Watts
By Jimmy Katz
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Jeff “Tain” Watts
By Jimmy Katz

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There’s this certain look that Tain gets when he really bears down on the kit. The focus is intense, accompanied by a slight tilt of the head and a particularly mean looking snarl...like a pitbull on a short leash laying for a mail carrier’s butt. In the intimate setting of the Zinc Bar, where he plays every Monday night in New York City with guitarist Ron Affif, this aggressive gaze—a barometer for ‘badness’—can be rather intimidating.

Jeff “Tain” Watts has been flashing his pit bull game face for nearly 20 years—first in the service of the early ’80s Wynton Marsalis Quintet, more recently with brother Branford’s quartet featuring Eric Revis on bass and Joey Calderazzo (filling in for the late Kenny Kirkland) on piano. In between, Tain has brought his highly interactive might to bear on a number of musical situations, including bands led by saxophonists Michael Brecker, Ravi Coltrane and Kenny Garrett, pianists Geri Allen and Danilo Perez, trumpeter Brian Lynch, guitarists Affif and Paul Bollenback and vibist Joe Locke.

“I tend to play kind of busy with these groups but most of the time it doesn’t bother them,” says Tain. “And a lot of it is because I came up with a thing that’s like a composite picture. I’ll hear what they’re playing and immediately my mind will transfer to all the spaces in between what they play. So I can play busy without interfering with them. It’s more like an answer to a question as opposed to somebody playing something and you playing it right back to them. To me, that’s like a fucked up conversation: ‘Hey man, what’s happening?’ and you respond ‘Hey man, what’s happening?’ And then the guy says, ‘What are you doing?’ and you repeat, ‘What are you doing?’ That’s not a conversation. The way I do it, it still has the essence of what they said but it shows that you heard it and commented on it, just like trying to simulate a conversation.”

That intuitive approach, combined with his tremendous drive and facility on the kit, has helped Watts establish himself as one of the most exciting and in-demand drummers on the scene.

(Indeed, saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Michael Brecker have at times vied for his road services at the same time, with Branford ultimately winning out.) But until the release of Citizen Tain, his Columbia Records debut, few knew that Watts was also an accomplished composer. Following in the tradition of Tony Williams, who labored to gain the respect as a composer he felt eluded him through most of his career, he is working to establish his writing credentials on the same high level as his extraordinary playing. He states his case boldly on Citizen Tain.

“A few different people brought to my attention that it was important for me to write,” says Tain as he bears down on a plate of chicken and ribs with the same gusto that he summons up behind the kit. “Back when I was recording with Wynton, he would encourage me to write but I wasn’t prepared to do it at the time. And once I ran into Billy Hart at Sweet Basil’s and he said, ‘While you’re playing with this cat, man, just write something, anything. You know, just write something around the drums, anything you can think of.’”

Another bit of encouragement to bring out the composer within came from an unlikely source. “I was in L.A. at Maurice’s Snack ’n’ Shack, a soul food place on Pico Boulevard,” Tain begins, “and Luther Vandross was there. He was doing a record with Gregory Hines at the time and was having lunch at Maurice’s, and for some reason he recognized me. He didn’t know who I was or who I played with, he just knew I did something. So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a musician, I’m a drummer.’ And he was like, ‘Well, I’m out here doing this record...you got any tunes?’ I told him no and felt really stupid about having to say that. And even though this is a different realm, it made me think about having some music of my own.”

That point was driven home once again during a memorable recording session from 1990. “I was doing a record with Geri Allen called The Nurturer with Marcus Belgrave, Bob Hurst and Kenny Garrett. And everybody on that session but me brought in a tune. I could’ve gotten something together but I had a block towards writing back then.”

With the help of people like Kenny Kirkland, Tain eventually overcame that writer’s block. “He helped me to trust my ears,” Watts says of his longtime partner. “Because over the years I’ve played a lot of original music and after a while if you have ears that are deepened, then you have an idea of how music sounds. He just taught me that if it sounds good to me then I should know after all this time that it’s solid without going through any kind of formal composition process.”

Ironically, it was during Tain’s least creative period—a three-year stint in Los Angeles with Branford Marsalis and The Tonight Show band from 1992 to 1995—that the drummer began working in earnest on writing original material, some of which eventually made its way to Citizen Tain. “I got heavily into composing out there just to make up for the cultural deficit of the show,” he explains. “Kenny and I lived next door to each other and I would go over there every night to just write. Some things I’d write on piano. For some of the stuff that took facility that I couldn’t execute on the piano, I’d go to marimba or xylophone and pick out melodies. Some things I’d write from the bass. Kenny had an upright bass at his house and we’d sit up and play ballads with it. And I also wrote some stuff on the Macintosh computer.”

Because The Tonight Show gig was less than satisfying in an artistic sense, Tain found himself actively seeking out other playing situations on the side just to keep his chops and his spirit up. “It took about a year for the gloss of the show to wear off,” he explains. “After that we were trying to make gigs on the weekend wherever we could. Sometimes we would do gigs with Branford’s group and then Kenny and I also had a couple different situations—a straightahead group and a Latin jazz group. And I was sitting in a lot on other people’s gigs too. Anybody who came to town I was trying to sit in with, whether it was McCoy Tyner, Joshua Redman, Frank Morgan or whoever. I was almost like a pest, just because I was so hungry to play.”

Ultimately, when the L.A. scene became too much of a drag, Tain split back to New York with Branford and Kenny. “After a while the realization was that the bulk of your energy had to go into this job,” he says of his high-profile Tonight Show gig. “That’s your job; that’s what you do and that’s really who you are. So I would feel really funny whenever musicians would come to town from New York. I would feel a connection to them but then on a certain level I wouldn’t because I had been out there in L.A. for so long. It really made us all appreciate what we had going back in New York. We were able to make our own music and the leaders that I worked for had artistic control over their lives and stuff like that. You know, everything was cool before. So we came back.”

And they came back with a vengeance.

“Now I want to have as little regret as possible about making some music, because life is short,” he says. “I mean, I lost my friend, a great musician,” he says of Kirkland, who died in November of 1998. “And I realize that I could’ve taken more advantage of him and his spirit and his genius while he was around. So I’m just really appreciative now being involved in this music.”

Born on January 20, 1960, in Pittsburgh, birthplace of drumming icons Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke, Jeff Watts gravitated toward the drums at an early age. Starting on snare in fourth grade, he played classical music in the school system until tenth grade, at which point he acquired his first drumset. Watts majored in classical percussion at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University before enrolling at the Berklee School of Music, where he befriended fellow players like Branford Marsalis, Kevin Eubanks, Donald Harrison, Wallace Roney, Greg Osby and Marvin “Smitty” Smith.

“Different people along the way gave me encouragement,” he recalls. “Early on in Pittsburgh I took some lessons with the great Roger Humphries, who plays on ‘Song for My Father.’ My family just encouraged me to be happy, to really do what I wanted to do. They saw that after a while I was serious about this music thing, even though they weren’t music people themselves. They didn’t collect records or anything like that. Music was a very small part of their life. I think they would’ve preferred me to pursue a music education degree, because that’s all they knew about. They knew about people in Pittsburgh who were playing in joints and they knew about people who had degrees in music education who were band directors or teaching in school or something like that. So the whole concept of somebody having a career as a player on a scale that I aspired to or that I’m doing now was really foreign to them.”

Stranger still, to his parents’ way of thinking, was Tain’s decision to move to New York in 1981 to play with a then-unknown young trumpeter. The scenario went down something like this:

Parents: “Why are you going to New York?”

Tain: “I’m going to play with this guy.”

Parents: “What’s his name?”

Tain: “Wynton Marsalis.”

Parents: “Wynton who ?”

Tain: “Oh, he plays trumpet. He’s good. Just wait; you’ll see.”

Watts appeared on Wynton’s self-titled 1981 Columbia debut and his 1983 followup Think of One. Branford joined the group for 1985’s Black Codes From Underground, which expertly mined a mid ’60s Miles Davis Quintet vibe. Tain remained with Wynton through 1986’s J Mood, 1987’s Live at Blues Alley, which features the Kenny Kirkland composition “Chambers Of Tain,” and two separate volumes of Standard Time before joining the Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kirkland in 1989. There was a distinct shift in Watts’ approach to the kit during this time, from the Tony Williams-influenced style he affected with Wynton to the rolling and flowing Elvin Jones-ish pulse he got into with Branford’s more open-ended music.

“The kind of time feeling and flow that Elvin has...it’s always been kind of the easiest way for me to play,” he says. “That whole vocabulary is very natural to me. But at the same time one of the lessons I’ve learned is don’t get too modern too soon. So I really sidetrack and checked out the tradition of Papa Jo Jones and Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey and people like that. And for a while I kind of resisted that natural Elvin flow in my playing, so on Wynton’s early music I tended to be more derivative of Tony than Elvin. But then after a while the Elvin thing started coming through more in my playing. And really, Elvin’s voice is like part of my voice. So now I don’t really resist it, I welcome it. When I’m in that medium groove, if I’m not just playing straight time and I’m trying to kind of interact and stuff like that, I’m not ashamed to say I come directly out of Elvin’s flow.”

But his approach is more about invoking the spirit rather than the letter of Elvin’s playing, which comes across most convincingly on the deeply moving “Attainment” from the new album. “I don’t know one Elvin Jones solo,” says Tain. “I don’t know the way he plays his ride beat or whatever. And even though I don’t know very many of his figures specifically, I’m kind of glad I don’t. Michael Brecker can actually sit down at the drums and play more of what Elvin Jones played than I can. And a lot of people can play more of what Tony Williams played than I can. But mostly what I get from other drummers is how they make the music feel. Not so much specific information about technique but rather trying to capture the spirit. And after a while I just arrived at a place where as long as I’m swinging and I’m really vibing on the music, I can trust my ears and play it the way I feel and not worry about where something comes from.”

Tain’s recorded output with Branford before The Tonight Show gig came along includes the open-ended Trio Jeepy with bass legend Milt Hinton, 1990’s Crazy People Music with Kirkland and bassist Bob Hurst, 1991’s excellent trio outing The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which included the Branford composition “Citizen Tain,” and 1992’s live trio set Bloomington. His post-Tonight Show output with Branford includes the adventurous 1996 trio outing The Dark Keys and this year’s superb Requiem, which along with Citizen Tain represents some of Kenny Kirkland’s last recorded performances.

The material on Citizen Tain showcases Watts’ conversational approach in a variety of settings, from the quirky, Monkish “The Muphkin Man” to the fire-breathing opener “The Impaler,” the free-form, Ornette Coleman-influenced “Wry Koln” and the delicate Paul Motian ballad “Trieste,” a prime example of his mastery of dynamics with brushes. The album’s rousing closer, “Bluetain’s Big Adventure,” is N’awlins-flavored extended blues that reunites the original Wynton Marsalis unit for the first time since Branford’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

Harnessing his remarkable facility, Tain exercises soulful restraint on the loping “Bluetain, Jr,” content to make the music feel good rather than flash chops, a quality he admires in the playing of longtime Thelonious Monk drummer Frankie Dunlop. “It’s fun to just sit right there on a tempo,” he enthuses. “Some drummers feel like they’re not really playing the music if they’re just kind of laying there and playing a groove. But there’s all kinds of room for creation inside of that. And for that I’ve been checking out Frankie Dunlop and Ben Riley, cats who just really swing and create within that zone without ever feeling a need to really bust out. There’s a whole separate school of straight ahead playing, a call and response thing, like with Miles and Tony Williams. Elvin’s thing is more inclusive...he and Coltrane kind of play together. Ed Blackwell and Ornette Coleman have a kind of North African call-and-response thing. But Frankie Dunlop’s thing is another version of that that’s like really lowdown and funky.

Monk will play something and Frankie will play with him and against him and stuff like that. So there is invention going on but the emphasis is also on maintaining that funk all through that. I just really dig that. He doesn’t sound like anybody else.”

Nor does Tain himself. And with Citizen Tain, a much fuller portrait of the man is revealed in 11 scintillating tracks. It’s a powerful statement from one of the most consistently musical drummers on the scene. “I just wanted to have some good melodies, some good songs that people could listen to and push the drums forward within that,” he says.

Whenever Tain sits down behind the kit, he’s pushing the drums forward with power, passion and undeniable swing, making him part of a rich continuum that goes from Baby Dodds to Big Sid Catlett and Papa Jo Jones, on through Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Frankie Dunlop, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and into the future. It’s a prospect that makes him both proud and humbled.

“The drums have taken me on a trip,” he says. “The drums led me to Los Angeles and that made me write. And so everything is very logical. Everything in my life has led me to this point now where I feel kind of compelled to be a drummer-bandleader in addition to playing with people that I love. The opportunity is really there for me because I’m on a major label and I have music that I’m pleased with. So I’m feeling very blessed.”

Gearbox

Back when I was playing with Wynton I had a Sonor kit with a 22 inch bass drum instead of a 24 and with 12 and 13 inch rack toms, 14 and 16 inch floor toms and different snare drums, mostly metal. But then I started watching Al Foster and Ben Riley and all these guys who play smaller kits. And one day I caught Harry Connick, Jr. at the Village Gate with Brian Blade on drums. This was before he moved up here to New York, before he was even known. And Brian was playing this little kit in the style of Frankie Dunlop. This was right before Branford started going out with the trio, and seeing that kind of made me start playing a smaller kit. So now with Branford’s trio I’m playing a four piece kit. These are the Sonor Sonic drums, which are the heavy ass Sonor drums that everybody complains about and which they don’t manufacture anymore. They stopped making them around ’85 or ’86 but I have one with a 12 inch rack tom, 14 inch floor tom, chrome metal Sonor Sonic snare drum and a bass drum that’s actually a 16 inch floor tom on its side. I’ve seen Billy Higgins playing a converted 16 inch floor tom for a bass drum like that. It’s kinda small but it’s very direct. Actually the bass drum size is less and less important to me. Because I’ve seen Tony Williams play very delicately with a 24 inch bass drum and then I’ve seen Bernard Purdie kick a big band and play some funk with an 18 inch bass drum. So it just depends on what you do with whatever you’ve got.

Cymbalwise, my top hi hat is an old 13 inch K Zildjian that I picked up in Turkey eight years ago. The bottom is an HH Sabian hand-hammered. The ride cymbal directly above the hi hat is a 20 inch old K Zildjian that I got in Chicago. In the center is a 16 inch Sound Control machine-hammered Sabian that just sparkles. In general, what I’m really going for with my cymbals is the sound that Roy Haynes has on We Three...like maybe the first 40 seconds of the record. They play a vamp and right before the melody comes in he hits a cymbal and it really sticks out from the rest of the kit. The main ride cymbal is an old 19 inch K Zildjian that I picked up in Los Angeles. And it has two rivets in it. Without the rivets it’s very, very dry but with the rivets it’s a cymbal that’s very easy to play Billy Higgins-like. It blends with everything. Then on the far right I have a cymbal that’s called a Rocktagon that Sabian makes. Originally, they made it for heavy metal music but I started to play it because I used it to replace an 18 inch hand-hammered cymbal that I had from Sabian that I used to play with Wynton. It developed a crack along the groove that made it sound really nasty and dirty. And the crack got bigger and bigger until the cymbal died. So I kind of use this cymbal to fill that void.”

Listening pleasures

“I’ve been listening to a lot of Monk, Miles and Coltrane. I also have this record of ragas from North India that I’ve been checking out. Afro-Cuban music... always, whether it’s
Los Munequitos, bata music or the Fort Apache. Hip-hop...Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes. I thought Lauryn Hill’s record (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) was great. And I’ve been listening to Bernard Purdie a lot lately because he has a universal thing. It’s not gonna be fancy, but whatever he plays, it’s gonna be right. So I really dig Aretha Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West. I tell drummers who come to me for recommendations on what to check out to listen to this album. I feel that if you can play everything that’s on that record and play it strong and build upon that, then you’ll always work. Because there’s some shuffles on there, some gospel grooves and ballads and funk and some almost reggae hybrid things that he plays with Aretha. And it’s all played with maturity and feeling.”

Originally published in November 1999

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