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Stepping to the Beat of a Different Drummer

Pop Music * All Rolling Stones musician Charlie Watts ever wanted was to be a jazzman. So why does his new album sound like techno?

May 31, 2000|DEAN GOODMAN | REUTERS

If ever there was a frustrated musician, it would have to be Charlie Watts.

While most artists crave stardom, Watts has spent the last 35 years being rather embarrassed by the fame and fortune heaped on him as drummer for the Rolling Stones.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are natural rock stars. Watts, who turns 59 on Friday, is an accidental rock star. The gray-haired grandfather does not particularly like pop music, and he certainly never listens to his band's albums.

His reticence just makes him more popular with Stones fans: When Jagger introduces him at concerts, the applause goes on forever while the dapper Watts grimaces and obsessively adjusts a knob on his perfectly arranged 1958 Gretsch drum kit.

Watts is the London-born son of a truck driver; his only ambition was to become a jazz musician and emulate his heroes in smoky clubs. He cannot believe his bad luck in joining the R&B combo that went on to be called the "greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world."

But membership does have its benefits. Traveling the world has allowed him to visit international jazz landmarks and see his favorite performers in action. And he has enough millions put away to organize his own jazz ensembles, take them on tour and make records with them--all very respectable stuff.

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So his new album should raise a few eyebrows, because it is more likely to be heard at an Ecstasy-fueled rave than a classy jazz joint. Watts joined forces with veteran session drummer Jim Keltner to venture into the high-tech world of hypnotic dance beats and exotic studio effects.

"The Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project" is being released in the United States by the Malibu-based new age label Higher Octave Records and internationally by its Virgin Records parent. Watts wanted to call it "On the Shoulder of Giants," but British rockers Oasis used pretty much that same title for their latest album.

Dance mixes of the tracks are being distributed to nightclubs.

So does it fill Watts with glee to metamorphose from strait-laced drummer to cutting-edge techno-maven? "Not at all," he said in an interview, as succinct as ever.

"The glee comes if it works. No, it's just very interesting, to be honest. I've never listened to records like this, but then I don't suppose most people listen to records I listen to, which are 1950 Art Blakey records."

Keltner originated the project while he was working with the Stones in Los Angeles on their 1997 album "Bridges to Babylon." He had collected sampled sequences over the years and got Watts to play along with them.

At the end of 1998, in between Stones tours, Watts took the tapes to a Paris recording studio where he teamed with co-producer Philippe Chauveau to edit them into a cohesive package. Keltner provided transatlantic input. In contrast to Stones albums, which Watts says are "notoriously expensive" to make, this one "hardly cost anything."

Each of the nine tracks is named after a jazz drummer, though the titles were assigned more by coincidence than by design, and that is about the extent of the jazz quotient.

The first track was recorded at about the time versatile West Coast jazz icon Tony Williams died in February 1997. So Watts called it "Tony Williams," and it went on from there.

"Kenny Clarke," named after the bebop giant, boasts an Arabic sound that was incorporated during the Paris sessions. "He's my favorite drummer of all, Kenny Clarke. When you mention that track, it's just lovely that you mention his name, I think, for me. That's all it is," Watts said.

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So how would a track called "Charlie Watts" sound? "[Expletive] awful, I should think. I don't know, actually; I'm not interested in that."

Jagger and Richards helped out on the album: Jagger plays keyboards on "Tony Williams," which he co-wrote, and Richards plays guitar on "Elvin Suite," named for former Coltrane sideman Elvin Jones. Fellow Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood also joined in on an unreleased track.

"He's got a version of 'Art Blakey,' which he's on," Watts said. "But I didn't want any guitars on [the album] because it makes it sound like a Rolling Stones record, and I didn't want that. There's no point in bringing another Rolling Stones record out, is there?"

Speaking of which, what is coming up on his schedule?

"Nothing. I don't want to do anything, either."

Any plans for the Stones to go into the studio?

"Nah."

Watts said it would be "marvelous" to hit the road to promote the new album, but he hates leaving his Devon country estate in England, where he tends to his vintage autos, his world-class stud horses and his vast collection of American Civil War memorabilia.

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