A Wider Embrace
Trevor Watts in Tampere

by
Bill Shoemaker

WattsHarris

The Old Customs House in Tampere, Finland is an imposing brick building, particularly in the dingy gray that passes for daylight in November. Built in 1901, it is a stolid building, architecturally, but it has one overriding virtue: a vast open interior. This has been thoroughly exploited by the City of Tampere in its transformation of the Old Customs House into a cultural center, and it is crucial in the building’s role as the focal point of the Tampere Jazz Happening. The main stage area is cavernous, with a stage large enough for a symphony orchestra, a massive section of stadium-style seats, and a somewhat buffeted concessions area, which itself is bigger than many jazz clubs. Midnight shows are presented in the 350-seat, full-service Klubi, which allows audiences to remain in the building for 12 to 14 hours at a stretch.

Even though the Jazz Happening also presents in Telakka, a close-by, rough-hewn restaurant space of similar vintage, it is the Old Customs House that really sets the tone, ambiance-wise, for the Tampere Jazz Happening. The festival’s aesthetic equation between cutting-edge and youth-friendly manifests in massive neo-psychedelic projections on the ceiling and cyclorama curtain, and 20-foot+ tie-dyed drapery tubes on the stage wings, illuminated from within. During performances by festival headliners like The Yohimbe Brothers, the presentation, replete with teeth-rattling decibel levels, does enhance the Happening component of the festival’s name and mandate.

Yet, the environment was a daunting challenge for a 1pm set by the duo of Trevor Watts and Jamie Harris. Every element that gives the Old Customs House its insidiously magnetic presence at night is simply foreboding at this time of day, particularly for the traveler half-nelsoned by jet lag. Anything less immediately inviting than the combination of Watts’ streaming saxophone lines and Harris’ buoyant hand-drummed rhythms would have been cause to seek sleep or coffee.

The duo’s music is a distillation of Watts’ decades-long investigations of the communal impetus of traditional music, the forms he has developed to commingle traditions, and the contemporary edge he has refined in the process. Throughout most of the 1980s and ‘90s, Watts has pursued his music under the Moire Music banner. Though there are many distinctions that can be made between the various editions of his Moire Music Ensemble, Moire Music Drum Orchestra and Moire Music Trio, their music is predicated on the overlaying of materials to create a multi-cultural mix. The duo strips this down to the bare essentials – rhythm and line.

There is perhaps no single piece of music that better exemplifies this than their opener, “Ancestry.” Harris establishes a brisk rhythm, and Watts lays out what initially seems to be not so much a defining theme, but parameter-setting materials. This approach allows Harris to fluidly move accents about without obfuscating the steady pulse, which in turn gives Watts more options in variegating the materials. In the process, Watts opens the conduit between African, Asian and Latin American scales and phrases, which Harris supports with changes in the rhythmic feel. Eventually, Watts latches onto an uplifting phrase heard at the beginning of the piece, which Harris sings with him. It then becomes apparent that this is the heart of the piece, and has been determinative without being obvious, let alone pedantic.

The following two pieces used aspects of this approach in a persuasive, if less wide-ranging way. Switching to alto for “Recharge,” a horn from which he can coax warmth from one moment and summon fire the next, Watts favored shorter, smoldering lines with an Indian tinge. He periodically locked onto a phrase that he would intensify, thickening its timbre or suddenly elongating it into a cry. Harris’ response was intriguing; instead of matching Watts’ building intensity, he would offset the saxophone by changing the tonal movement of his patterns. At the outset of “Tribal,” Harris shifted between patterns and effecting a unison with Watts’ soprano; as Watts’ interspersed pentatonic lines and cascading arpeggios, Harris diverged, changing up the patterns to create a heated rhythmic torsion.

The keystone of the set was a heavy ballad. Watts’ unaccompanied alto introduction meshed non-Western tonalities and phrase shapes with an understated jazz romanticism. When Harris did play, he successfully negotiated the tension between the forward rhythmic movement of the traditional idioms he prefers, and the rubato feel of Watts’ introduction. Harris was neither decorous nor insistent; he boosted Watts’ intensity without disrupting his finely wrought emotional pitch. More than anything else in the set, this piece revealed Watts’ jazz modernist roots.

During the remainder of the set, Watts and Harris used several finely calibrated ensemble devices: the slow steady acceleration of tempo from lamenting chant to Minimalist swirl; the mirroring of saxophone phrases and drum pitches; and flowing calls and responses. They served to underscore not only the discipline required of traditional music, but the imaginative leaps Watts takes with them, as well. Watts and Harris do have the liability of making it look easy. They really do seem to toss these performances off, one after another. It’s the refinement that comes with proximity. Some things can happen in Hastings that can’t happen in London.

The other noteworthy aspect of the duo’s music is its lucid temperment. Watts and Harris are not in the throes of trance, even when their music is furiously burning. Such was the case on the set’s closer; with the benefits of circular breathing, whorls of textures spooled out of Watts’ soprano, while Harris’ hands were a blur. The impressive pyrotechnics did not dim the duo’s attentiveness. The close listening inspired by Watts’ work with African drummers was very much in evidence in their crisp conclusion to their energizing set, which eliminated the need for sleep or coffee.

 

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