A Wider Embrace
Trevor Watts
Selected Recordings

by
Bill Shoemaker

Watts

The purpose of this rather streamlined survey of recordings currently available on CD is to trace the arc of Trevor Watts’ music for new listeners. Hopefully, the selections will cause the cognoscenti to ask, What about…? And, then pull out some of their favorites.

with Spontaneous Music Ensemble:
Challenge
(Emanem 4053)
Quintessence 1
(Emanem 4016)

For all that is said about European improvised music freeing itself of free jazz, it bears the occasional reminder that the musicians who led the music out of the jazz wilderness began by extending the shapes that jazz had become by 1965. Challenge finds Paul Rutherford, John Stevens and Trevor Watts playing the idioms of the day with facility and zeal. Though the non-idiomatic improvisational aesthetic that became synonymous with SME was only a year from emerging, this 1966 date found all three reconstituting components from sources such as Ornette and Eric Dolphy into their compositions. Playing flugelhorn, Kenny Wheeler reinforced the modernist edge of the music, soloing with an already mature reconciliation of complexity and lyricism (bass player Bruce Cale and his replacement on two tracks, Jeff Clyne, also met Stevens on the London jazz circuit). Rutherford, Stevens and Watts, however, take every opportunity to slip out of the mold, if only for short pungent asides. Still, the music on Challenge is light years closer to the jazz mainstream than the CD’s bonus track, featuring a quartet with Stevens, Watts (on piccolo and alto), Evan Parker (on soprano) and bassist Chris Cambridge. Recorded in 1967, this 15-minute improvisation roughly parallels the post-energy music, collage-like approach of the AACM, which had yet to be documented on widely circulated recordings. This postscript is a telling indicator of how fast the music was evolving.

All overt connections to jazz had been purged from SME’s music by 1974, when Quintessence 1 was recorded in concert by a quintet with Parker, guitarist Derek Bailey and Kent Carter, playing cello (and bass on three bonus tracks). The differences in Watts’ playing are emblematic of the changes in the music, generally. Instead of the long loping lines, angular asides, and the briskly paced forward movement he favored in ’66, Watts had embraced the fragmentary utterance that was not only standard operational procedure in SME, but also in Music Improvisation Company, then the central venue for Bailey and Parker. Watts and Parker provide an instructive comparison of how attack and timbre took a larger role in the assertion of individuality than in phrase-based jazz lexicons. Oversimplified, Watts flutters and quavers while Parker sputters and growls. Over the course of 40 minutes, small details accumulate into compelling music. Carter, Stevens and Watts recorded the three bonus tracks in ’73. In this setting, Watts is more expansive; overall, the music has more of a free jazz-steeped passion but stops short of recycling its nomenclature.

with Amalgam:
Prayer For Peace
(FMR CD96-V0402)
Samanna
(FMR CD125-L0503)

Even though Stevens was on board for the first few years of its 13-year run, Amalgam was Watt’s band from the outset. Recorded in 1969, Prayer For Peace embraces melody and swing, no small matter given that this was improvised music’s headiest period. The somber, even melancholic tone of Watts’ tunes is leavened by his exuberant playing, which is ably foiled by Stevens and Jeff Clyne (who is replaced on the title track by Barry Guy). Compositionally, Watts’ use of minor keys and pentatonic scales lay the groundwork for the cultural pluralism he will later champion. In the three years subsequent to Challenge, Watts put appreciable distance between himself and his earlier models, particularly on the title piece, which presages the ominous atmospherics Scandinavians used to fuse folk music and jazz in the ‘70s. Guy’s stunning arco technique is a large reason for the piece’s success. Though this is his only recording with Amalgam, Guy worked with Watts and Stevens well into the ‘70s, recording the fine No Fear in ‘77, which has been reissued by Hi 4 Head, along with two CDs of previously unissued performances.

Amalgam’s later music is derided by some as fusion. Certainly, by the mid 1970s, electric guitars and basses are prominent in the mix, and Stevens’ jazzcentric drumming is replaced by the more rock-influenced work of Liam Genockey. Yet, to throw the F bomb at Amalgam is knee-jerk. Amalgam had a bold experimental stripe, as evidenced by the presence of bassist Lindsay Cooper and pianist Keith Tippett on ‘74’s Innovation and guitarist Keith Rowe on the late ‘70s albums, Over The Rainbow and the 4-LP Wipeout (all reissued on CD by FMR). To a degree, this obscured the real legacy of Amalgam, Watts’ coalescing articulation of a multicultural music that reflected a deep, respectful investigation of traditional music and an incisive application of contemporary components. Arguably, the album that really foreshadows Watts’ later music is one of the more rarely discussed, Samanna, recorded in 1977 and featuring a quintet with Genockey, guitarist Dave Cole, and the twin bass guitars of Pete Cowling and Colin McKenzie. Watts’ approach to rhythm is particularly noteworthy. The 20-minute title suite has a fine example of the type of “circular rhythms” Watts extracted from African music. On “Berlin Wall,” Watts manages to create a natural rhythmic feel in switching between sections in 7/4 and 4/4. Additionally, Watts’ use of the layered lines – which, at its busiest, has a passing resemblance to the “everybody-solos-all-the-time” approach developed contemporaneously in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time – lays the foundation for Moire Music.

with Moire Music:
With One Voice
(FMR CD108-L1002)

Watts’ Moire concept of approximating the shifting patterns visible on fine fabrics like silk centered on the layering of circular rhythms and folk music-inspired themes. Its application in regards to thematic materials reaches an early apex on the often jubilant With One Voice, recorded in 1988. With a nonet including three drummers, three keyboard players, bass guitarist and a two-sax front line (the other being the estimable Simon Picard on tenor), Watts was able to change rhythmic feels, shade the tinge of his themes and move instruments up and down in the mix with kaleidoscopic results. The pieces last between 8 and 19 minutes, allowing Watts to seamlessly segue between the seeming polar opposites of simmering sax and drums workouts and pellucid lyrical melodies, often highlighted by vocalist/keyboardist Liane Carroll and accordionist Richard Granville-Smith. The album is also noteworthy for its introduction of Latin-hued themes, which Watts braids into the African and English/Celtic strands of his music. The demands on the ensemble are considerable, but with such close collaborators as pianist Veryan Weston and percussionists Nana Tsiboe and Liam Genockey in the band, Watts is able to make this complex proposition extremely palatable.

with Moire Music Drum Orchestra:
Live In Latin America Vol. 1
(ARC CD06)
A Wider Embrace
(ECM 1449)

With Moire Music Drum Orchestra, Watts increased the number of percussionists to five, and dispensed with the other Western instruments, save the bass guitar. While the motivic interplay that distinguished Moire Music is subsumed by pulsating African rhythms, Watts does manage almost single-handedly to keep contrasting, cross-cultural thematic materials present in the mix. The most obvious example of this is Watts’ arrangement of a traditional Irish tune, “The Rocky Road To Dublin,” on the 1993 ECM studio date, though there are is a subtle seepage of melodies from Latin America and the Islamic world throughout both albums. Recorded in 1990, Live In Latin America sets what could be considered the template for subsequent Moire Music groups. Watts solos passionately and expansively over the rippling percussion fabric provided by Genockey, Tisboe, Jojo Yates, Nee-Daku Patato and Nana Appiah, with the bass guitar of Colin Gibson gurgling underneath. This is altered somewhat with the replacement of Gibson and Genockey by, respectively, Colin McKenzie and Paapa J. Mensah on A Wider Embrace. McKenzie combines serpentine lines, popping accents and brusque chords to provide a more detailed counterpoint to Watts. Mensah is a more Afro-centric kit drummer, who emphasizes the traditional 3 over 2 rhythms instead of the steady 4 preferred by Genockey. Still, this is much more a forum for Watts’ improvisational gifts than Moire Music.

with subsequent Moire Music groups:
Moire Music Trio
(Intakt CD 039)
Moire Music Group: Live At The Athens Concert Hall
(ARC CD08)

In the mid-‘90s, Watts pared his ensemble down to a trio with Colin McKenzie and Paapa J. Mensah. This eponymous ’95 studio date captures how Mensah single-handedly underscored the rhythmic twists and overall Mobius strip-like quality of Watts’ themes into bolder relief. Additionally, the music places greater weight on the brinkmanship of Watt’s unisons with McKenzie and the bass guitarist’s penchant for prodding Watts in improvised passages with an almost antiphonal use of low register rumbles and popping high notes. A bit more so than previous outings, Watts turns to a lilting melody and a gentler groove, but by no means does this result in flaccid music. Instead, these tracks are reminders in Watts’ abiding commitment to melody.

Watts returned to using multiple percussionists in his last Moire Music Groups of the late ‘90s, two of which are featured on Live At The Athens Concert Hall by virtue of a track recorded a year later at the ’99 Beijing Jazz Festival. Instead of using an all-sub Saharan contingent of hand drummers, Watts supplemented the percussion section with Ali Iaazane, playing Moroccan instruments, and, on the Beijing track, Roberto Pla, who introduces Latin instruments to the mix. Nana Tsiboe remains an impact player on the Athens tracks, while Paapa J. Mensah takes over on the Beijing cut. Nick Parnell and Greg Leppard split the kit duties, leaving Colin McKenzie as the only constant between the two bands. Generally, the music glows as often as it burns; still, the album ends this phase of Watts’ career on a strong note.

recent miscellany:
Trevor Watts & The Celebration Band
(ARC CD010)
Trevor Watts: World Sonic
(Hi4Head HFHCD004)

Trevor Watts & The Celebration Band marks a nexus of two strands of Watts’ work over the decades. Watts first became involved with community workshops in the ‘70s, working both with John Stevens and, in the ‘80s, with vocalist Maggie Nichols. However, these activities centered on improvisation and were often directed at non-musicians. With The Celebration Band, comprised of musicians living in the Hastings area, where he has resided for years, Watts’ aim was to hone their skills to the point where they could persuasively perform technically daunting compositions. Leading an octet with saxophonists Rob Leake, Amy Metcalf and Marcus Cummings, percussionists Jamie Harris and kit drummer Giampaolo Scatozza, guitarist Geoff Sapsford and bass guitarist Roger Carey, Watts returned to the layered rhythms and interlocking motivic patterns of Moire Music. The Celebration Band meets the challenges, playing with vigor comparable to that of Watts’ earlier units. There are occasions when Watts’ cohorts are a bit shy of the sophistication of a Simon Picard, Colin McKenzie or Paapa J. Mensah, but such instances pale in comparison to their overall performance. They nail the odd meters, put a shine on Watts’ tricky themes, and solo with informed passion.

The old adage, “better late than never,” certainly applies to World Sonic, Watts’ thoroughly engaging 2005 collection of alto saxophone solos. Watts’ concept of solo music is closer to that of Steve Lacy, in that the solos are a different manifestation of concepts being refined on an ongoing basis, as opposed to articulating a separate body of procedures and materials the way Anthony Braxton did in his early solo music. In using the non-Western rhythms, scales and structures that are the bulwarks of his ensemble music, Watts also sidesteps the pitfalls of generic free improvisation. Without the layers of percussion and the entwining bass guitar lines, Watts has the space to explore circular breath-propelled repetition, and to shape his themes by rushing a phrase or letting a rest linger, and he repeatedly exploits these opportunities. Subsequently, there is more of a slow burn, meditative intensity to this set. For the purposes of examining the constituent parts of Watts’ approach, the set is invaluable.

 

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