Photo by Janette Beckman
The Christmas Ernie Watts was 14, his mother gave him a record player as a present. To ensure he had something to play on it, she also bought him a membership to a record club. The first album the club sent him had been released only months before, in August 1959. It was Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and it changed Watts’ approach to music. 'When I first heard [saxophonist] John Coltrane play, it was like someone put my hand into a light socket,' Watts has said.
Since then, Watts, now 64, has devoted his life to electrifying the lives of his listeners. Over his four-decade career, the saxophonist has won two Grammys and been featured on more than 500 recordings. In addition to playing jazz with such legends as pianist Thelonius Monk and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, he’s performed in a range of pop and soul contexts. He appears on rock maverick Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo album, joined the Rolling Stones on tour in 1981 and can be heard on the soundtrack of Grease. “I believe the secret, if there is one, of my versatility, is basically just a simple love of all good music,” he told Time Out in an email interview.
Though he has performed such a variety of genres, Watts’s saxophone is instantly recognisable. His playing, said one critic, is characterised by a 'fertile harmonic imagination… rippling cadenzas…the ability to swing at any tempo' and, most of all, his 'beautiful Trane-soaked-in-wine tone'. Watts said that he began to learn about tone listening to hundreds of hours of records by Coltrane, Adderley and Charlie Parker. Even though his harmonic playing was necessarily limited when he began to do pop music sessions in the studios of Los Angeles in the late ’60s, 'I had lots of time to work on my tone', he said.
The saxophonist’s taste for the unconventional has served him well as a member of bassist Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, in which he has performed for more than 20 years. The chamber-jazz quartet often explores themes that aren’t typically associated with jazz, such as Hollywood film music of the 1930s and ’40s. Watts has also been a member of Haden’s overtly activist Liberation Music Orchestra, though he confesses that he isn’t a particularly political person. 'My main drive or inspiration in music is to play the most beautiful music I can in every situation,' he said.
To help him fulfil that ambition, Watts and his wife Patricia have started their own record label, Flying Dolphin Records. 'I’ve reached a place in my life where I need to make music on my terms, and starting my own label provided me with a new sense of freedom,' Watts has said. The label’s latest release was an album by Watts’ long-time quartet titled To the Point.
Even as he continues to explore different genres of music, Watts continues to push boundaries in the field of jazz. 'I feel it transcends cultural boundaries and limitations, being a connection between people rather than something divisive,' he explained. 'It touches the common bond among all people, and can uplift the soul.'
Ernie Watts performs with The Jeremy Monteiro International Trio on 26 & 27 May at FUSE (Lobby level, Marina Bay Sands Tower 2). Cost: $20 hotel guests, with one standard drink; $30 public, with one standard drink. Tickets can be puchased in advance at FUSE.