Courtesy of Trevor Watts

Distributed by NorthCountry



Saxophonist / Composer Trevor Watts is one of those people who follows his own instincts and interests when it comes to music - he has absolutely no time for compromises or fashion statements. In a way, Watts’ avoidance of pigeonholes has perpetuated his stay in the musical underground. Now that some of his earliest work is being re-issued (on Emanem), he could easily exploit the fact that, along with John Stevens and Paul Rutherford, he helped establish a distinctly British style of free improvisation in the mid-60s. From his work with Amalgam, he could also lay claim to being one of the first to utilize electric guitar and electric bass creatively in freely improvised music. Yet, Watts is no free improv snob. His innovative, highly rhythmic Moire Music groups - active from the early 80s into the present - integrate trance-like African polyrhythms with modern jazz improvisation in a very personal way. The depth and range of Watts’ art is best exemplified by the title of his early 90s Moire Drum Orchestra release on the ECM label: "A Wider Embrace."

DAVE WAYNE: Though some of your earliest recordings were with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Amalgam, my first contact with your playing was in the context of a quite different sort of collaboration you had with percussionist John Stevens: Away. I really enjoyed those records & they still sound very fresh today. How was an Away gig or session different from an SME gig or session? Did you have any qualms about playing with electric instruments?

TREVOR WATTS: Away came out of Amalgam. We were so interchangeable that when John got the chance to record with a band he wanted to call Away, and it looked like we were on our way a little (…you know, better exposure, etc.), he used exactly the same band that had been playing as Amalgam. In fact, there's also a recording of that group with Liam Genockey instead of John on drums. That was on the VINYL label, a German record company.

The sessions differed in the respect that Away & Amalgam were more related to Free Jazz, of sorts, than the totally experimental SME. So we rehearsed the tunes etc. With SME we rehearsed the style and the concept. I personally had no qualms about playing with electric instruments. That's what Derek Bailey played anyway. Also no qualms about the more Jazz/Rocky sort of concept (though we didn't call it that), in fact it was all research really. What John liked to do was put different hats on. His bebop hat for playing straight gigs in pubs & sometimes Ronnie Scott's club. His free jazz hat-Amalgam & Away and free improv hat with SME. This always confused me a little, as I was always into developing in a whole way. So that ALL I'd ever learned was encompassed in the one way of playing. Bringing in all the strands. Nevertheless I did participate in some of these more specialised areas because I was a very close friend and associate of John's, and had been since 1959. So I'd always give things a try. My true heart was in Amalgam, and later on Moire Music Drum Orchestra and Moire Music Group, and now the new Celebration Band.

DW: The Celebration Band? That’s a new one on me!. Is this group distinct from the Moire Music group?

TREVOR WATTS: The Celebration Band has more of a direct link to the initial 10 piece Moire Music Group than the current 5 piece. The 5 piece is looser than the Celebration Band, which has a lot of compositions, etc., that frame the solos. The Celebration Band is a lot tighter than the original Moire, due to more rehearsals and work going into it. There are also similarities, of course, because I compose the music for both groups, and so I look for interesting rhythmic angles as well as those angular melodic themes, etc. Whatever the band is, I like it to drive along strongly. And I think the Celebration Band also captures that drive. Well, I hope it does to your ears!

DW: So, what is the lineup of the "Celebration Band"?

TREVOR WATTS: The line up for the Celebration Band is 4 saxes, guitar, bass guitar, drums & percussion. Though on the CD we're recording for ARC I have also played various percussion and put some piano down. The group started out as a workshop situation with all younger players who've just been fired up by the music, so we've began to really try and do something with this unit. It also started out as a band that could play in the Street as well as in the concert hall. In the Street we play a different pad of music in the main, and of course mainly saxes and percussion. You can't carry a bass guitar around. Well you can, but not much sound comes out of it unplugged! So we're around and about playing as many concerts as we can. I'm hoping to bring it to the States next year, and I'll have the CD ready about September. I think it'll surprise a few people.

DW: Going back a bit, the concept of musical research seems especially relevant and appropriate when talking about the sorts of things you, Paul Rutherford and John Stevens did with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Judging from the quality of your recordings with SME, there were many successful experiments! I've always been curious as to how you came into contact with John Stevens, and how – together with trombonist Paul Rutherford – SME formulated that distinct style of freely improvised 'group music.'

TREVOR WATTS: I first met John Stevens along with Paul Rutherford at the Royal Air Force school of music in Uxbridge, London. That was 1958. I had to do my National Service (3 years in the air force) and both
John & Paul, who didn't have to do theirs (they're both a bit younger) went in there to learn music. In order to be trained for the band they made you sign on for 5 years, and so that's what we all did. There were no Jazz courses at any colleges, and I didn't go to college anyway (I left school at 15 to work in a bakery), and where I lived in the Industrial working class North of England, hardly any music. However my Dad (who'd lived in Canada in the early 30's and visited America) brought back his love of Jazz, and "black" music in particular. He also brought back many 78's. So I heard those sounds as a child in the 1940's.

I was always looking for a different "turn of phrase" in a player, and Ernie Henry took my ear at an early stage. I loved his raw sound. Of course I heard all the greats, but always went for the different ones like Dolphy, Ornette, etc. John and Paul also had a love of Contemporary sounds, and so when we left the RAF School of Music we all were stationed in Germany where we could freely see visiting musicians like Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dolphy, and Mingus, etc. Also, we had every afternoon free, so it was round about 1959 insome ways that we started to experiment. When we got demobbed in 1963 we all stayed in London, and eventually got together in about 1965 to really look for something different. One thing led to another, and we came up with the concept of a type of improvisation that reflected, for example, John’s drum stick style, if you know what I mean. In that context, we all wanted to play like the drum really. That was the beginning of Evan Parker's staccato style, and I also was obviously part of the same movement. I didn't take it up so definitively as Evan, as I am primarily a melodic player of sorts.

Good examples of us playing together in this style, and alongside Derek Bailey (who was also influenced in some ways by his associations), are the Emanem releases "Quintessence 1" & "Quintessence 2" (Emanem 4015 & 4016). And the smaller group of Derek Bailey, John Stevens & myself on Entropy (USA) 004 "Dynamics of the Impromptu". The last is a fairly recent release of some tapes I had. I felt that would help to redress the balance a little, as I feel my contributions have been pushed aside a little due to the lack of recorded output, but I still have all the tapes (the real evidence). Even so, there was a review in an American magazine recently that stated (regarding "Dynamics of the Impromptu") that I was often thought of as a stand-in for Evan! The writer is obviously young & ignorant and has no sense of the real history, and so I hope these sorts of things can be stopped before history gets rewritten, as I actually was there first. When I say that about being first it is only meant as a statement of fact, of course I know that first doesn't always mean best. But it certainly means a willingness to try for something that even we didn't understand, and to take certain risks that are not there so much now.

DW: To me, the sound and feeling of SME is very distinct, often refreshingly so, from what was going on in free improvisation in the US (e.g., Shepp, Coltrane, Ayler, ESP...) and Paris (Frank Wright, Earl Freeman, Arthur Jones, and the rest of the BYG gang...). Do you see it that way as well? Was there a concerted effort to go down a different path?

TREVOR WATTS: Yes it was a concerted effort to free ourselves from the American model and find something new. When Steve Lacy first heard it, he called it "fragile."

Maybe he was right in some ways, but not wholly. It was "fragile" only in the sense that it was the early days for the kinds of experiments that we were trying. Nevertheless it is my belief that it wouldn't have happened without the American model of free jazz, vis-à-vis Ornette in the 50's, etc. So our influences came from the earlier generation, rather than our Contemporaries whom you mentioned. By then we were off & away.

One of the reasons I became a bit disenchanted with the free music scene in the 70's is that for one it started to become a bit Nationalistic. You know Dutch & German musicians who'd definitely heard Ayler, being proud about the ‘new Dutch music’, etc., and even being slightly anti-American in the process. I can understand that denial may have been brought about by insecurity. But I also think that goes against the spirit of open improvisation. Also, at that time, melody was a no-no. What I like about the scene, now as opposed to then, is that the players seem MORE open and certainly more relaxed than that previous generation’s. I guess people were desperate to make a mark with their music at that time, whereas now it's
been around a while and become more acceptable. So I quite enjoy free improvisation these days with some of the players that are around today.

DW: Yeah - I think improvisational music is undergoing some sort of renaissance, at least in terms of the numbers of people trying it out. Which players are currently the most interesting for you to improvise with - in a total improv setting, that is?

TREVOR WATTS: The player I most like to improvise with currently is pianist Veryan Weston. We shortly are planning to record a CD for Emanem. My first recorded foray into improvised music for many years. Before then I had a very close and exciting improvising duo with drummer Liam Genockey, who had played in several editions of Amalgam and Moire. We'd developed that very intuitive way of playing, and that was a joy! I have recordings, none ever issued.

DW: Say, what's Liam Genockey up to these days? I've always enjoyed his playing, and he’s one of those rare players who can succeed in pretty much any musical environment… even Heavy Metal!

TREVOR WATTS: Liam is out & about playing with EVERYBODY as usual. I think his period with me was a very important one in terms of his overall development, and I think he'd be the first one to say that. Before he met me he was playing in a blues trio. I don't think free music was in his mind at all at the time. He's a very good all round drummer. So I don't think he'll have many fears re employment. Trouble with that is, you never really get down to developing your true potential within any given music if you concentrate on being an all round player. But I don't think that's essential for him anyway, though he gets a lot out of total free expression.

DW: So - do you think your participation in music that isn't 100% freely improvised has changed others' perceptions of you as a player? It seems to me, after living and playing music in the UK myself for a couple of years, that doing both free-improvisation and music that is not purely improvised is frowned upon. This attitude seemed particularly acute within the UK free-improv community. Is this so?

TREVOR WATTS: I think you hit it correctly when you say that when a person gets involved in other music forms, especially if in the first place they think of you as a purely improv musician, it's frowned upon in this country (i.e., the UK). It’s the same in other European countries. I'm not absolutely sure why. Snobbery comes into mind, but that could be to do with a feeling of insecurity.

To me it suggests that these people who frown upon it need to loosen up a little and become more free and accepting of others that don't participate in a way that they think is correct. There are free music fascists along with vegetarian fascists and National Socialists in Germany: in the last war, let us not forget that they passed themselves off as Socialists! It's as if - because free improv players use the word "free" - it automatically stamps them with more freedom than others. But it’s that way of thinking that restricts them, and it’s the very same thing that limits their music.

I think in America, in general, there's more of a liberated way of thinking (of course you have manyproblems, too) at least amongst the fraternity in this area of music. Therefore the music becomes more diverse. I share this way of thinking, and always have.

But as I think I said, I left those musicians behind, and they left me around about mid 70's when I created Amalgam, which was treated by some as a jazz-rock thing. If it was supposed to be jazz-rock (which it wasn't), it failed in every way. No, it was really another step into something that we had to somehow formulate ourselves because it featured a guitarist who was from the sound/noise school (Keith Rowe), and a funky bass guitarist who was getting into improvised music as well. Colin (MacKenzie) was only about 20, then, and funk is what he mainly knew. More importantly, though, he had an open mind; and that's the type of person who will stand more of a chance of being truly creative – just listen to his playing now!

DW: A lot of the stuff Amalgam recorded back in the late 70s, and into the 80s, reminds me of some of the stuff Derek Bailey, Peter Brotzmann, and others are doing with electronics today. What do you think of that?

TREVOR WATTS: I still remember to this day Peter Kowald and Brotzmann in the 70's on hearing that group (Amalgam), and putting me down to my face! They asked why I'd sold out! They simply didn't comprehend the concept for what it was at the time. Subsequently, years later you get Last Exit, Derek Bailey playing with drum & bass or something like that, Evan (Parker) with Jah Wobble, etc. Big deal!! I realised the excitement of those kinds of combinations 30 years ago! And that's just a statement of fact.

There are people who seem to be able to transcend free improv and other forms of music who are accepted by both camps. Lol Coxhill for instance. Conversely, the fact that I'm still thought of as Avant Garde by many promoters and agents means that I don't work on the normal Jazz scene all that much, and I don't work on the improv scene either. Not many people do, though. It's amazing how promoters can generally only look at one or two players in the improv scene and keep booking them. So there seems to be limited room in that area. I tend to feel most people are scratchin' around. So, I occupy my time a lot at home practising and writing music and organising bands whether there are gigs or no gigs. I can't be waiting around for somebody to give me paid work, so I just get on with it, and feel lucky that I can afford to do it! Mainly through living quite frugally!!

DW: I find it disturbing that Amalgam was so poorly received by the community then, whereas now others are clearly following in your footsteps. For example, as much as I enjoyed the recent 'loud & electric' Derek Bailey CDs, it seemed to me that his playing on these owes quite a bit to Keith Rowe's on "Over The Rainbow", and also to the fellow who played on "Deep" - I can't recall his name…

TREVOR WATTS: …Dave Cole. A very quiet, sensitive man who found life pretty difficult, I think. A very shy man, so I tried at the time to encourage him to come out of that shell. He was a nice player though. Pity about that. He had great potential, which his personality stopped somehow. You see, certain people get a profile and therefore their things get heard - more above others.

DW: While looking over LP and CD liner notes and such, I was reminded of some of the other artists you have worked with - Stan Tracey in particular. Here's someone that most US jazz fans don't know about, but should... could you elaborate on the projects you worked on with Stan Tracey?

TREV0R WATTS: Stan also played in a few versions of Amalgam. But, for many years, he was the house pianist at Ronnie Scott's Club playing with whoever came through: Sonny Rollins, for example. I always see Stan as out of the Ellington / Monk school, really. He was anothermusician who started to come up to the Little Theatre Club and get into other things. He would perform\ experimentally, as did other straight players before him, like Kenny Wheeler.

So, I was in a band called Open Circle alongside Danny Thompson (a good Jazz player, though he’s better known as a bassist in folk music, with groups like Pentangle), Stan, and John Stevens. It was primarily a harmonic/rhythmic, but free improvising, group. Again I have tapes at home. We even played Ronnie Scott's club for one week in 1973 opposite Art Blakey’s band. Art even asked me to play with him, but I saw Lockjaw Davis was waiting for me on stage (he was also sitting in), and in some ways I didn't feel ready. Art was very encouraging about my playing, as he was about many younger people at that time. A missed opportunity? Life only brings some things up once!

A lot of collaborations like this were initiated through John Stevens’ sheer gregariousness, and he formed a short lived band that lasted from 1972 to ‘73 that featured well established older musicians and younger ones like John & me. For example, this band had Tubby Hayes and myself on saxes, Kenny Wheeler (Trumpet/flugel), Stan Tracey (Piano), and both John Stevens, and probably the UK's finest Jazz drummer, ever, Phil Seamen, on drums. (Phil never went to the States. He wasn't allowed in due to his heroin habit. That's another story though). Finally Jeff Clyne was on bass, who was also the house bassist at Ronnie
Scott's. It was an exciting band as, again, we made it up as we went along: be-bop with free etc., and that was 1972. Again, I have recordings in the house. The band finished after the premature deaths of Tubby Hayes and Phil Seaman. I think Stan was getting the horrors that he'd be next! That band was called

So, as you can see, John and I were willing to hold out the hand of friendship to our elders in spite of
the fact that the fight was on in the 60's to establish newer forms of music. Like in South Africa today. You have to embrace former rivals. I still believe in Democracy, for which I get laughed at sometimes, but it's a nice idea, even if it’s an impossibility to achieve!

DW: How did your collaboration with Bobby Bradford come about? I've only heard 2 of the recordings from that period ("Love's Dream" on Emanem, and "SME with Bobby Bradford, Volume 1" on Nessa) and they are both wonderful!

TREVOR WATTS: The collaboration came about by Bobby going to the (UK music magazine) Melody Maker office and asking if there were any musicians around he could get involved with during his first visit to Europe. Richard Williams, who was a music journalist working for Melody Maker at the time, suggested John (Stevens) and me. And that's how it came about. We immediately hit it off. I'm still in touch with Bobby from time to time. But it'd be nice if he made the initiative for a change. We like coming over there to play as much as he does here, but it's tough having to get the work on both sides of the pond!

DW: Well, Trevor, I’d like to thank you for your frank, forthright and intelligent answers to my many
questions. Is there anything else you'd like to say before closing?

TREVOR WATTS: I'd just like to say thank you for asking these questions. Without the interest of others, like yourself, one can feel in a bit of a vacuum sometimes. I really appreciate anyone’s interest and the fact that the music I've made (well, some of it anyway) has given people some pleasure. The Celebration Band exists to try to give even more of that pleasure, without compromise, and hopefully our musical sensitivity will allow the audience to come inside, and without patronising them.

Dave Wayne is a Staff Contributor for Jazz Weekly. Comments? Email him.