Jeff “Tain” Watts: Burning Down The House

By Andrew Lentz // Photo By Paul Haggard Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s June 2009 Issue

Speeding along the I-95, Jeff “Tain” Watts is trying to get in the proper headspace for a gig tonight in Philadelphia. As his girlfriend pilots the van, Tain offers maddeningly vague responses to questions about what the evening will entail. “It should be cool,” is about as detailed as he’s willing to get.

A riff on both his surname and the Los Angeles neighborhood that precipitated the civil rights movement, Watts is a fiery testament to the drummer’s ever-evolving skills as a composer. It’s no wonder he enlisted the stellar likes of trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and bassist Christian McBride for the recording. Who else could keep up?

It’s likely that Elvin Jones and Max Roach — Tain’s two primary influences — were on his mind during the composition of Watts. But given this Pittsburgh-bred drummer’s open-mindedness, it was inevitable that other influences seeped in as well. “In this setting I definitely thought about Ed Blackwell, and I thought about some of the drummers that worked with Thelonius Monk, like Art Blakey and Frankie Dunlop and Ben Riley, you know, just as far as a vibe and a sound, and of course, Dannie Richmond, who worked with Mingus. I just tried to have it all be creative, but at the same time play with some soul.”

As soon as you hit the play button, Watts detonates with the full-kit workout of “Jitney Man.” Tain plays it straight on “Brekky With Drecky” before getting nice and Big Easy with “Katrina James,” an exercise in deeply swung meter. “It would be pretty easy for a tune like that to get academic or a little stiff,” he says. “It’s still kind of busy, like the bass is kind of busy, and I’m kind of moving back and forth, but I’m just trying to make the overall eighth-note feel of it be nice and even and flow.”

The best track, both in terms of drum parts and melody, would have to be “Dancin’ 4 Chicken,” a sly reference to a head-nodding time signature that Watts masterfully disguises. “It’s kind of a strange phrase,” he says. “It’s maybe not 32 bars but maybe just, like, 30 bars. There’s something a little different about it even though it’s trying to come out of this country thing and have a certain kind of down-homeyness to it — but it’s all in 4/4 to my knowledge.”

Drum-driven as the new recording is, Watts never feels drummy. Take the impressionistic “Wry Köln”: a think-piece for drum set, or in Tain’s words: “less of a rat-a-tat-tat drum solo.” Luckily, Watts makes it easy on the rest of the guys to accompany. “There are little cues I put [in] writing the drum parts that let the musicians know when to come in,” he says. “It’s like being able to conduct them while I am taking a solo.”

Sometimes the way forward for a drummer is foraging through the instrument’s instructional history. When he’s not gigging in the West Village or in Europe, Watts is in his Brooklyn studio delving deep into the canon of drum pedagogy. “I’m working on snare drum stuff out of one book by Buster Bailey called Wrist Twisters,” he says. “Then I’m working on other stuff; there’s a whole series of warm-ups in the Master Studies, Vol. 2 by Joe Morello. Other than that I’m just really sitting and playing time, just trying to be relaxed and have control at a softer volume, just trying to get more and more comfortable with the instrument.”

Last time one of the DRUM! staff caught Watts live, he was playing the Oakland jazz emporium, Yoshi’s. As a study in four-limb independence, the performance was nothing short of a revelation. “I try to just set one thing in motion, like both feet in motion. Then once that’s established I’m just trying to improvise with the other stuff and just forget about the other stuff that’s already in motion.”

Any advice on improving independence? “A lot of studies of independence these days incorporate Alan Dawson’s philosophy and Jim Chapin’s philosophy, just as far as holding some kind of ostinato and then practicing an independent line against it, which you can just get from a lot of different books like Progressive Steps To Syncopation [the 1958 instructional guide by Ted Reed].”

For the most part, Watts and his bandmates mesh well on Watts, but there are moments in the recording when Marsalis and Blanchard overpower the drummer. Watts is an unusually selfless player, but if there are times when the trumpet or sax get a little extra shine, that’s all part of the plan. “I’ll definitely write a part for Branford,” he says. “But then there are other times where I’ll just write a description or go to him and explain something and perhaps make a reference to another recording that I know we’ve both listened to.”

Long gone are the days when Watts was a mere “entertainer,” as he dismissively sums up his three years in Los Angeles as part of The Tonight Show band. His goals for the near future involve pushing against his chosen instrument’s parameters, whether it’s reinventing his own tunes for exclusive release on iTunes or getting deeper into his role as a composer.

“I’m really going through a thing right now where I’m trying to add some stuff to my style and just change my approach a little bit,” he says “It’s always going to sound basically the way I sound, but in these next couple of years — where normally I would just sit at home and think of things to create — I’m definitely going to refer more to recorded information and try to transcribe a little bit and see where it takes me.”

VITALS
Band Jeff “Tain” Watts Quartet
Age 49
Influences Mike Clark, Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, Lenny White, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey Birthplace Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Latest Release Watts

GEAR
Drums Sonor
Cymbals Zildjian
Heads Remo
Sticks Vic Firth