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Charlie Watts & Jim Keltner Talk Drums

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During the past 15 years, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts has been able to pursue his passion for jazz, playing in a variety of settings whenever he wasn’t otherwise engaged with the World’s Greatest Rock ’n Roll Band. In 1985, he formed a big band and toured the States, ultimately releasing Live at Fulham Town Hall on the Sony label. In 1991, he formed a small group to pay homage to the music that first grabbed him while growing up in London. In a span of five years, The Charlie Watts Quintet released a series of stellar recordings – From One Charlie, Tribute to Charlie Parker, Warm and Tender and Long Ago and Far Away – that reaffirmed Watts’ ongoing love affair with jazz.

Now, for his most personal and compelling statement to date, Watts has joined forces with fellow drummer Jim Keltner, a studio session ace whose lengthy list of credits includes work with Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, John Lennon, The Traveling Willburys and the aforementioned Stones. Together, the two drummers have created a genre-defying yet nonetheless heartfelt tribute to jazz drumming royalty. The song titles, each named for a different jazz drumming legend, tell the whole story. And though Watts and Keltner make no attempt to imitate their heroes by aping signature licks or trademark fills, they convey the very essence of their individuality and attitude on nine provocative tracks.

The bold Burundi beats on “Art Blakey,” for instance, convey the sheer power that piloted The Jazz Messengers for so many years. The jaunty energy of “Roy Haynes” captures the ebullient spirit of that ageless hipster while the majestic “Elvin Suite” is a fitting tribute to Elvin Jones, one of jazz’s most regal drummers and the “rolling thunder” behind John Coltrane’s quartet from the ’60s. The giddy samba groove of “Airto” speaks of the playfulness of that Brazilian master while the dirge-like “Tony Williams” is a stirring requiem for that formidable drumming master who died just a week before the recording session. Other tracks are named for bebop pioneers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, West Coast jazz icon Shelly Manne and smilin’ Billy Higgins, a charter member of the revolutionary Ornette Coleman Quartet that helped change the course of jazz.

An ambitious undertaking that had its beginnings at a Los Angeles recording studio in 1997, The Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project evolved over nearly two years’ time, culminating in digital editing and overdub sessions at a Parisian recording studio near the end of 1999 with co-producer Phillipe Chauveau. DRUM! spoke to the two key participants in this startlingly unique session.

DRUM!: How did you initially propose this collaboration to Charlie?
Keltner: When we had this downtime [on the Stones’ Bridges to Babylon sessions] we would go into the other room, which was Studio 2. I brought my sampling machine down at one point because I was basically curious to hear what it would be like to have the Charlie Watts beat on a couple of my little sequences, you know, my songs, really. So he played on them one night. He didn’t know the form, of course, because he had never heard this stuff before. So he would ask, “What should I do?” And I would tell him, “Just go ahead and play and I’ll play along with you.” I wanted the core sound to be his. See, I don’t play like Charlie. Sometimes I try to in the studio but I’m a lot more busy, I guess.

DRUM!: What would you say is unique about Charlie’s playing?
Keltner: Listening back to some of these tracks I was floored because it was so amazing how Charlie can rush like mad and still make it feel great. But that’s what he’s always done with the Stones. That’s his style. With anybody else it would be like, “Oh, oh, he’s rushing.” But with him there’s such commitment or something – I don’t know exactly what it is. He can’t explain it and I don’t necessarily like going into too much detail with him about it. I just marvel at it. The essence of his playing is as a jazz player even when he’s playing rock, in that he starts a thing and he commits like jazz players do, with emotion.

DRUM!: It seems like quite an intuitive project, from the initial stages to its completion.
Keltner: Yeah, Charlie’s instincts were really fantastic on this. I have ultimate faith in his taste, so I told him, “Hey man, whatever you want to do.” I mean, nothing happened without Charlie’s approval. He really produced this thing. Charlie’s genius is that he oversaw everything and kept the thing simple, reigning it in from getting too ambitious with orchestrating around the melodies. Yeah, this is truly Charlie’s baby. I just feel really happy to be involved. To have done this with Charlie is truly special in so many ways. I treasure Charlie and always have. Not only me but every other studio player that I know has tried to emulate Charlie’s playing. And none of us has ever got it right because there’s only one cat that can do it. And I’m not sure why or how that is, but he’s certainly the one.

DRUM!: Charlie, I have to confess that when I received this CD, I just assumed it was going to be a continuation of your own interest in swing and bebop. I was quite surprised when I put it on.
Watts: Well, yeah, it is a departure, you might say.

DRUM!: Just checking out the names of the tunes – “Art Blakey,” “Max Roach,” “Tony Williams” ...
Watts: Well, those names weren’t there in the beginning, but they kind of came up when we were making the original tracks. I mean, they could’ve been called “Track 1,” “Track 2.” They could’ve been called anything. But at the particular time we did this project, there happened to be an awful lot of people playing around Los Angeles and I’d go and see them with Jim – Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones. And Tony Williams had died like the week before we began recording. Actually, that’s why Roy Haynes was in town, subbing for Tony on a gig. So those people were very much on my mind at the time we were recording. But these tracks have nothing to do with what they play, really. It’s more about a feeling that I get off of them, really. And it’s a tribute to all the people there.
Keltner: What would happen was Charlie would name these things afterward. He’d listen back to them and then say, “That’s Roy Haynes.” And I’d say, “Right!” I don’t know how he arrived at the “Billy Higgins,” but I trust him. All I know is I don’t second-guess him for anything. The man has impeccable taste about everything: his clothes, his music, the names of tunes. The Stones have relied on him forever but you never hear about that, you never read about it. Charlie never toots his own horn. He has never done that.

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