Foundry 616, October 29
His almost serene, middle-distance stare was a mask. Boiling from his limbs was an intensity behind the drums that few have matched. Even when the stare was punctuated by eye contact with a colleague, or a grin of mischievous delight, Jeff “Tain” Watts’ drumming remained ferocious.
Watts may have shot to prominence 33 years ago with Wynton Marsalis, but he did not end up sharing his erstwhile leader’s rear-view-mirror perspective on jazz. Where Marsalis’s perfectionism can be overly polite and even prissy, this was take-no-prisoners jazz: a firestorm of energy in which there was nowhere to hide. Watts’ drumming was so loud, so potent and so primal that timid collaborators would probably have been squashed like the musical version of road-kill.
Helmetless and with no visible body armour tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, pianist Osmany Paredes and bassist Chris Smith stayed the course and shone intermittently, like three moons eclipsed by a sun. In fact seldom have I heard one musician so dominate a band and the resultant music still possess artistic merit. The great Sonny Rollins does it by having a group of compliant accompanists. Watts does it by sheer force, and this was not just a matter or volume. The scale of his musical personality made it difficult to concentrate for long periods on what the others were doing, so that often you did not hear the music as a whole, but through the prism of the drums and the spit and hiss of hi-hat and cymbals.
Subtlety and dynamics were not so much absent as occurring in a different paradigm, amid the mathematics of displaced beats and metric modulation, and of the time being halved, doubled or tripled.
The material was also mostly Watts’; compositions that came from various musical directions to fuel the firestorm. He even sang one song, and although some notes strayed from the centre of the pitch it was as guileless as the drumming was fierce.