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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DRUM!: Some of the pieces fit particularly well, like the strong Burundi beat on “Art Blakey.”
Watts: Yeah, well that is very Art Blakey, isn’t it. What I didn’t want to do on this was, I didn’t want to have a saxophone player, which I was sorely tempted to have. And I didn’t want to have a guitar or any familiar sounding instrument like that because the percussion and various electronic things make the music here. The overtones of the rhythm make a melody in themselves. So I didn’t approach it like I would normally do in a band, you know, where I’d hire five guys to play with me or something. I wanted to keep this as sparse and as simply “drums” as possible. But we also did it very electronically. And that was kind of the point of interest for me because I’m not normally into that. So myself, I don’t know how to judge this record. I just find I like it but I don’t know why because it’s not what I like, if you follow what I mean.

DRUM!: What kind of sampling did you do on this project?
Keltner: Well, my sequences are all organic. They’re not anything that anybody would recognize. There’s no real keyboards on any of my stuff. All my sampled stuff is like fish steamers and boiled egg cutters – just odd things – pipes and a lot of steel shelves, just things that I’ve acquired over the years being struck and sampled. On the “Max Roach,” for instance, I just used a sample of one of those old high-pitched PTS drums. The berimbau and opera gong samples have been pitched and filtered so that you can barely tell what they are anymore.

DRUM!: Although there is a lot of electronic sampling, it still comes across like a kind of organic percussion choir.
Watts: Exactly. That’s what it should be. And I didn’t want to pin it down with an instrument, you know. The only thing I did add was the piano, which I think is such a beautiful instrument anyway. The rest of the sounds, besides drums and percussion, are either electronically made or they are sampled or something. So it’s not a state-of-the-art way of making a record, but it is fascinating somehow.

DRUM!: I thought “Elvin Suite” was particularly evocative.
Watts: That was really the one. The melody was a thing that Blondie Chaplin used to sing and hum along, and it was so beautiful. Blondie’s from South Africa and so I made it into a very African thing, which seemed to work rather well.

DRUM!: I remember first seeing Elvin play. He looked so regal sitting behind the kit, like one of the kings of Mali.
Watts: Yeah. I first saw him in 1961 or ’62, and he looks exactly the same now. It’s amazing, man. And he plays as well. It’s unbelievable. Him and Roy Haynes, who is one of the most incredible musicians I know. Those two guys are ageless.

DRUM!: I thought that the jaunty attitude behind the “Roy Haynes” piece perfectly conveyed his spirit.
Keltner: That’s good. I just met Roy not long ago. Well, I met him with Charlie that night at Catalina’s when he subbed for Tony, and then I got to hang out with him at the PAS convention in Ohio late last year. I just didn’t have the nerve to tell him about this project at the time, but he was fantastic to hang out with.

DRUM!: The ageless Roy Haynes. He’s unbelievable.
Keltner: Oh he is. He truly is.

DRUM!: I once asked him what was the secret of his unorthodox snare/hi-hat combinations, and he said, “Watch [boxer] Sugar Ray Robinson.”
Keltner: Wow, yeah! That’s right. And it’s so beautiful to watch him now because he finally got to the point where he doesn’t even use the hi-hat anymore. He uses the hi-hat as just another voice, but it’s not a timekeeping device whatsoever. Often he just has his foot resting on top of the hi-hat stand. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. He’s so free and yet he’s so grounded. He just always has been a completely unique player. Totally unique. It’s funny because I know Jack DeJohnette really well. I met him way back in the ’60s with Charles Lloyd and Albert Stinson. I mean, we even exchanged sandals one time outside of a club. Jack is a real beauty and a really good friend, and I’ve watched him play for years. He blew my mind back in those days with his unorthodox approach. He had a real un-drummer-like approach, which was beautiful and fresh and fantastic. And I’ve watched him develop now to where I saw him at Catalina’s not long ago and he just blew my mind how he developed, where his time flow is so incredible and so “not there.” It’s just a mystery. It’s that wonderful place where I always wanted to go had I stayed with jazz. I mean, you just go to the point where there is no concern for structure and form and especially timekeeping. But it’s all there. But the point was, Roy’s so mysterious that I never saw a place where he came from, went to or arrived at. He just seems to me like he’s just been doing it all along. Ever since I first heard him play, he’s still doing the same thing except it’s even more amazing. It’s never really changed, but it’s gotten better somehow.

DRUM!: Where did this whole world music element come in on the CD?
Keltner: Well, the line is pretty fuzzy. The sampled berimbau on “Shelly Manne,” for instance, is on my original sequences. Phillippe overdubbed some oud and Hungarian fiddle on “Kenny Clarke.” He also added the bebop piano trio at the end of “Max Roach,” which I thought was a brilliant touch. And to hear Charlie playing that little bebop ride beat on that flat top cymbal of his, that was nice.

DRUM!: I was curious about the “Kenny Clarke” piece. It has a real strong Middle Eastern vibe to it with the oud and the violinist – not something you’d associate with one of the fathers of bebop.
Watts: Yeah, that came about through … my wife plays a lot of Arabic music and maybe that was part of the influence for it. Originally it was just straight drums and percussion with some samples on it. When I got to Paris, we chopped a bit up and I just said to Phillipe, “Do you know any oud players?” Because in Paris there are a lot of Moroccan and Algerian players. He’s also produced a lot of Arabic music in Paris, so he kind of knew that scene. So he found an oud player and a violin player. I was fortunate to have Phillipe to do things like that for me on this project.

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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.