DRUM!: Tell me about the “Tony Williams” track.
Keltner: Well, he had just died, basically. And he was supposed to appear at Catalina’s that week, but Roy Haynes filled in. There was no real advertising about this. You know how the jazz world is; you’ve got to kind of keep your ear to the ground to really know what’s happening. So somehow or another I heard that Roy was playing there with Tony’s group [Ira Coleman on bass, Mulgrew Miller on piano]. So Charlie and I went, and it was absolutely a thrill for me. I’ve seen Roy play for years, since the ’60s when I was a kid and used to sneak in the back door at The Renaissance in Hollywood. I’ve seen him for many years and I’ve heard him on all kinds of records, but I never heard him play as good as he did that night … in his seventy-third year! I was floored, Charlie was floored. It was an amazing, amazing night. Anyway, that kind of inspired that piece of music that we did, where Charlie is playing real slow with those slushy hi-hats and all. I was loving how slow the groove was and how it just was so slinky. And Charlie has this real jazzy quality on that track.
DRUM!: It’s a very moving piece, particularly with your vocal testimony on it.
Keltner: Yeah, that was actually Charlie’s idea. And it just so happened that I had this silly thing with me, this little megaphone type of voice disguiser thing. So I went out and tried to surprise him with it. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but it just came out to be about Tony. I didn’t even think about it until the last second. But I had just read an article on Tony where he was talking about the ride cymbal beat being the center of the universe. He said all kinds of great stuff. And Tony over the years has said many profound things about breathing and all kinds of things that stick with you as a drummer, you know? All that information was in my head at the time, so that’s what I talked about. You can’t really hear it too clearly. You can’t decipher it. But I started off with stuff from that article and then I was basically talking about my impressions of what he was like when I first met him, which was at the It Club on Washington Boulevard down in South Central. It was the first trip he ever made to Los Angeles with Miles [Davis]. He was just a kid and I was in the bathroom when he came in. And of course I was just ... you know how you are when you suddenly find yourself standing next to someone of that stature. I didn’t know what to say. I think I probably said something stupid like, “God, it’s great to meet you. It’s great to hear you play.” Something like that. And he didn’t look up. He just zipped up, turned and walked away on me. And I thought, “Why you cocky little f–!” But that’s good, you know? That’s the reason he plays like he does. I told that story to many people, and I told it to Tony many years later. We became good friends, God bless him, before he died. We were really good friends. And he loved that story. He thought it was funny.
DRUM!: The “Tony Williams” piece really sounds like a requiem.
Watts: It was meant to be that. We did it in one take. It was three times longer than that originally. It meanders on a bit, just me muckin’ about on the kit. Basically, it’s me and Jim doing something and then Mick [Jagger] joins in on piano. We often play around like that, Mick and I. Mick calls it “movie music.” It was a very moving time, really. That and the “Elvin Suite” were the ones that I knew would not change from when we did them, except for editing.
DRUM!: There’s a lot of layers going on with all these tracks, but at the core of it is Charlie’s signature beat, like the shuffle beat on “Roy Haynes” or that kind of “Start Me Up” backbeat on “Billy Higgins.” That’s quintessential Charlie Watts.
Watts: That was particularly at Keltner’s insistence. I kind of wanted to get into it more but Keltner kept saying, “Play that way you play,” whatever that is. But that’s it. He kept that there.
DRUM!: I thought it was nice touch that you played brushes on the “Elvin Suite.”
Watts: Well, that was to make a contrast to the other tracks, really. And that was just one take of straight playing.
DRUM!: That’s one thing about Elvin’s playing that is often overlooked because he was so powerful with the Coltrane quartet.
Watts: Yeah, rolling thunder, wasn’t it.
DRUM!: But he’s also very alluring with brushes.
Watts: Oh, beautiful. But God, he’s such an icon. He goes back so far, to the late ’50s with some of those things like the Bobby Jaspar Quintet. They came here in 1960, actually. Ronnie Scott’s, I believe. I saw Elvin in Los Angeles when we were doing this project. It was soon after seeing him that we did this track. I think in a way, that’s the one that comes off most of somebody. For me, it works beautifully, that one. The others work too, but this one really captures some essence of Elvin, I think.
DRUM!: It’s a beautiful tribute.
Watts: Well, thanks. You get doubts. [laughs] I do with this particularly because I don’t have anything to compare it to. On my previous albums I had something to hide behind, so to speak. Each time I could say, “Well, I don’t care if you don’t like it. Gershwin wrote that beautiful song and I think we do it beautifully.” Whereas, with this, I don’t know what to think. I don’t have any of those safety nets, you know? On this it’s like ...
DRUM!: It’s kind of uncharted territory.
Watts: Very much, for me. So it’s nice to hear that someone likes it a bit.
DRUM!: Well, I certainly hear the personal connection on each track. And as I said, several of these tracks are very evocative of the person.
Watts: It’s good, isn’t it? But it’s not meant to be ... it’s meant to be music of tomorrow, not from yesterday. And it would be great if people think it’s that. I mean, I’d love people to like it as a dance record. And if it so happens that they’re dancing to “Kenny Clarke” or “Max Roach,” that would be fantastic.