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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Ernie Watts Had to Leave Home to Find 'Long Road Home' to Jazz

End of the 'Tonight Show' gig got the saxophonist traveling again, and he rediscovered his acoustic roots.

September 26, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like most musicians tilling the world of jazz for a living, saxophonist Ernie Watts never considered himself a stay-at-home type. Jazz, after all, is synonymous with travel. Yet, there were those years, which stretched into decades, when the versatile Watts, a Delaware native who made a splash in Buddy Rich's band, was sitting pretty in one spot--Los Angeles.

As a member of the "Tonight Show" band under Doc Severinson's guidance, Watts, a first-call studio musician, was based in L.A. from the late '60s through 1991, when Johnny Carson passed the torch to Jay Leno, and Severinson passed his baton to Branford Marsalis. Suddenly, one of the best "day jobs" in jazz was over.

In a sense, though, his post-"Tonight Show" years have, thus far, amounted to Watts' richest period yet, at least in terms of his musical orientation. In the last few years, he has gained acclaim as the sax protagonist in Charlie Haden's neo-romantic group, Quartet West, while also redefining a solo career in a mainstream acoustic jazz mode.

It wasn't always thus. Earlier Watts albums veered toward pop- and funk-flavored brands of jazz, and the Grammies on his mantle are for an instrumental take on "Chariots of Fire" and his funkified album, "Musician."

Thus, a kind of poetic justice is inherent in the title of his newly released CD on the JVC label, "Long Road Home," especially if one considers Watt's true "home" to be jazz, proper. Watt's CD--his third acoustic jazz recording for JVC in as many years--officially hit the streets this month, and Watts will offer the official CD release party at the modestly scaled Jazz Hall club in Santa Barbara on Friday and Saturday nights.

These days, Watts is traveling all over the world with his various projects, and trying to find time to hang out in the rural house he bought in Colorado in 1987. When interviewed last week, Watts had come off an intense stretch, which included a month in Australia, a gig at the Russian River Festival with his long-standing collaborator Lee Ritenour and a guest soloist spot with a symphony in Atlanta.

*

After the Santa Barbara shows, Watts will play a concert with Doc Severinson's big band in Palm Springs, spend two weeks in Brazil with Ritenour and time in Europe with Quartet West. "The list goes on," Watts said with typical, deceptive tranquillity. "It's pretty busy, and that's a good thing."

There are some advantages, he said, to his new musical lifestyle. "It helps me focus more on my instrument, on my music and really just studying and taking my individual playing to a higher level. When I was doing a lot of studio work, I had to be prepared to play all of the instruments. Now, what I'm doing is really focusing on the saxophone and coming up with some things, just working on playing better."

"Long Road Home" is an unusual album in that it is drummerless. Pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Reggie Workman, guitarist Mark Whitfield and singer Carmen Lundy provided all the support Watts needed for his heated yet controlled saxophonic flights. Was it Watts' idea to dispense with the drum chair?

"I never even really thought about it, because I love playing with drums. My last couple of projects were with Jack DeJohnette, and that's like playing with a drummer and two percussionists. It's thunder and lightning all day long with Jack," he said.

"My producer, Akira Taguchi, came up with this idea. He said 'you've been playing with Jack on these last two projects. Why don't we do a blues-oriented project without drums?' I was apprehensive about it."

After Taguchi played Watts a drummerless album by Roy Hargrove, Watts was impressed by the possibilities of that spare, open sound.

This is a "blues" album in the broadest interpretation of the word. "I started studying the blues, blues progressions and blues moods," he explained. "I've got tunes on here that are not blues tunes, but that have a blues feeling, like 'Lover Man' and 'Willow Weep for Me.' I started going through different kinds of blues progressions and studying the way different people play the blues and put together the tunes, and wrote some for it, too."

Because of his eclectic array of projects over the years--from a tour with the Rolling Stones to pop-jazz settings with Ritenour to a role in Charlie Haden's semi-avant garde Liberation Music Orchestra--Watts' reputation in jazz circles has been hazy.

So, when he released the hard-driving albums "Reaching Up" and "Unity" with respected jazzers like drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Geri Allen in tow, critics and observers expressed surprise and delight.

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But, in fact, jazz never left Watts' life, and his recent retrenchment is less a second childhood than a matter of reprioritizing. "All the time I was doing the pop work and the fusion work, I had my little quartet . . . even though I was doing the studio thing, I was still listening and studying that acoustic music, because that's the music I grew up with," he said.

"For marketing and for presenting myself to the public, I've decided that when a project comes out under my name, it will be acoustic. Mainly, that's because that's the music that I came from, and also that's the music that all of this other music is an extension of."

* CONCERT

Ernie Watts will perform Friday and Saturday at the Jazz Hall, 29 E. Victoria St. in Santa Barbara. Shows are at 8 and 10:30 p.m.; 963-1993.

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