I learned to follow my muse - interview with Trevor Watts

Piotr Wojdat

How the improvised music changed during early days of Spontaneous Music Ensemble?

Trevor Watts: Well John, Myself and Paul Rutherford met at the RAF school of Music in Uxbridge, London in 1960, John was from Brentford which you could say now is a Western suburb of London. Paul was a real Londoner through and through, being born and living in the Blackheath part of London. As it happens, not far from Barry Guy's family home. Whereas I was from the Industrial North of the country. The West Riding of Yorkshire, and therefore treated like an alien in those days in the South.

My Father had lived in Canada in the late 20's and early 30's and visited the USA many times before coming back to England. He brought back his love of Jazz (and in particular Black Jazz) which I adopted from an early age after I was born in 1939. On that first day in the school of music we were all put in the same room (what an amazing coincidence). However, they wanted another Londoner in with them, so kindly asked me to go somewhere else. We all had to sign on for 5 years altogether, but I was caught by the draft (U.S.A.term) and had to do 2 years anyway being older than both John & Paul. They did not have to join, but it was the only way in those days that we could study the music. John had been playing on biscuit tins and Paul we saw playing in a Trad Jazz group.


We soon found out that we all loved, and continued to love Contemporary Jazz. Following every new trend, be it Coltrane, Dolphy or whatever. But we all had a good knowledge of all the conventional aspects of the music. So that encouraged us to start evolving our own concepts with the realisation that we needed to find a voice that was ours. In the early days it was based on what was already known, and eventually as we went along we developed concepts that also had other influences like Webern or Japanese Gagaku or African music, but developing personal aspects of these, no attempt at authenticity as that is a fairly pointless thing regarding this pursuit. There's a rich seam to be mined out there if you don't restrict yourself to the already very well known This whole period from the school in 1960 went through to around 1968 for the transformation.

What did you learn from John Stevens, with whom you have started SME?

TW: The biggest lesson I learned was to follow your own muse. I was very prepared to try out any idea that my friend of 15 years would ask me to. So I was the playing partner of John when he was developing a lot of his workshop ideas and also what we called the small music. So it was an effort on my part when he wanted me to play with him more like the drum stick spaces. You can hear the results mainly on  the duo CD's "BARE ESSENTIALS" or "FACE to FACE" and as a Trio with Derek Bailey on "DYNAMICS OF THE IMPROMPTU" the last CD with Derek was recorded during a period at the Little Theatre Club in London when John & I would play duo. Derek would then play solo and we'd all end up as a Trio. Martin Davidson recorded it and gave me the recordings. You can hear that the music is short and pointillistic with no melody or linear movement (or very little).


We also practised a lot of rhythmic ideas in our Jazz mode did John & I. But John would separate out his "Jazz" playing from his improv. In many ways to me it felt more natural to develop from our love of and understanding of Jazz, and that was partly there but not in a unified way within SME. At that point he was more influenced by other things as I said in my previous answer. Don't get me wrong I was also into all kinds of music. John & I worked for the then largest music publisher in the World Boosey & Hawkes in London's Upper Regent St near the BBC, until 1968 (my very last proper job as we say). I as a proof reader and so I took the music to the Royal Festival Hall or Royal Opera House and was able to stay and see the concerts. That was a big education for me too. John was in the Music Hire Library. Peter Knight the Steeleye Span Folk/Rock violinist was selling violins in the shop above, and packing up instruments in the packing shop to send to schools was a guy that when I asked him what he did, he said "I've got a little band called YES". It was Chris Squire the bass player before we all became famous or notorious?

But John became, to me anyway, increasingly more controlling in the later years. He didn't like it when I formed Moire Music, and even then tried to control the situation. He had found out that I was doing the Bracknell Jazz Fest with my Moire Music group and phoned me and said "You'd better let me know when you are applying for a festival in case we were applying for the same one" I said "If I were you John I'd apply for them all because that's what I am going to do". This is written only as an example, not with any bad feelings from me at all.


You've worked a lot with Veryan Weston and Barry Guy. How would you compare them?

TW: It's true that I have worked a lot with Barry and Veryan. But also at different times of our careers, and so that also makes a difference as we were all at a different stage of development than say later on when we started to formulate more seriously our individual playing personalities together with Veryan or Barry or separately. Originally when I started playing with Barry it was he that was the young man playing Jazz  in a more straight ahead way, and I think it was Paul Rutherford who went down and heard Barry play at Goldsmith's college in New Cross in London with a group playing Monk tunes and other things. We were looking for a bass player to play in SME and Paul said he'd found a possibility. It was the same with Evan who came and checked us out one night. He already knew Howard Riley the pianist and had done some playing with Howard. I think in a more Coltrane type of mode I gathered from their conversations, and Howard used to come up to the Theatre Club in between his job as a pianist on the boats to New York and back. He came mainly to listen. I think Evan was living in Birmingham in the Midlands at the time. And he said he'd like to get involved with what we were doing.

When I first heard Veryan he was a very young man, and played solo on the piano at the LTC. He sounded good for his age. It had been his sister Armorel that had found the performance space for us. It wasn't until around 1980 before I asked him to join the original 10 piece Moire Music group. Veryan has been a very important partner for me. We have similar musical sensibilities in that we incorporate anything that comes up in the playing and make music with it. Simple as that. There's no place we fear to tread because he's doing a similar thing to what I am doing. He is supporting my every move whilst I am supporting his. There's no prescriptive discussion about what to do or what to avoid doing. Just a core basic trust, and rarer than you may think. Neither of us bring in aspects of our personality that may have been affected within the performance day by other things. So it's like starting fresh every time, with no idea at all about what we are going to do. I love that. And a haven for us to just concentrate on the positive aspects of music making.


What do you think about RGG trio and their music and their musicianship?


TW: RGG are good musicians and they can simply choose to develop their music together and not enter into any of this collaborative stuff, I hoped that my visit did enable them to think of new things and help to develop their playing in some way. But yes I know. It's always a two way street, and I hoped that I succeeded in joining in with them in a way that gave them some pleasure and something to play with, that was my task to quickly learn. That's the least I could do. Considering we'd just met a few hours before and never ever played together it worked well for me, and a tribute to their musicianship. This is also the way a promoter, (and thinking of it at it's most positive), can make something happen that they thought of that may never have occurred without that suggestion. Good things did come out of this in my opinion. There are a heck of a lot of players out there. So most we wouldn't have heard. A chance for me to say thank you now as well.


How was to work with Stephen Grew? Last year we had an opportunity to listen to your album with him, which was released under the title "Let It Be". And it's not the only recording which you've done with him.

TW: Stephen's a great player, but in England he lives just about as far away as he can from me, or vice versa. So we do very little, but when we do do it, it's always a good connection and great pleasure. It was Stephen who initiated this duo as he had heard a recording of Veryan Weston & I playing together, and thought that he would love to play with my sound and area of playing. This does happen from time to time, and I always take it as a great compliment. Stephen is not working that much. London would get him heard more, but he'd need to live there or close, and he loves it by the sea on the West Coast near the Lake District in Morecambe with his family. He deserves so much more. He practices daily and keeps going with the family. He has more of a classical style of technique than a Jazz orientated one. I keep saying to him that he could do really well on the BBC Proms at the Albert Hall. All these great classical pianists that cannot improvise one note hardly, and this superb player who can, and with a great technique. I think they are missing a trick. Don't get me wrong. I love classical performance as well.


With who would you like to collaborate? I mean these artists with which you haven't work already.

TW: Well I recently played a duo with Mark Sanders, and although I have played with him in the Trevor Watts Quartet - (Watts/Weston/Edwards + Sanders), it's never been what I would call frequent. The LISTEN FOUNDATION label have just released the cd THE REAL INTENTION - Trevor Watts Quartet "live" at Cafe Oto. We performed on one day of a 2 day residency I had there last September + we played the London Jazz Festival in November at the Purcell Room in London's South Bank Centre. This recent concert with this duo was our very first foray into duo territory, and it was very satisfying for both of us. There has been a film made of it by film maker Mark French who also lives here "Live at the Beacon" He's a very good Professional film maker. The Beacon is a performance space in Hastings. So if the festival that's planned in Hastings is allowed this coming September, we can do duo performance No 2. That would be great, and Mark will film that also. This is a great desire on all our parts. I always am too busy to be able to sit back and think about who I would like to collaborate with. I feel I am always too busy getting on with the work, practising the horn and currently developing the duo with percussionist Jamie Harris who lives here. That always interests me more as it's what I do EVERY day. Thinking of how can we develop the music into something very special, and that takes time, work, thought and dedication. Usually people who collaborate a lot, that is what they look for and do. I am of the opposite persuasion. I like to develop a music, and go out and play THAT. However collaborations seem to interest people quite a lot, and particularly some promoters, as as I said earlier, it is a way of them being creative. So I can understand that..

What are your plans for the near future?

TW: Plans are to survive the COVID 19 virus. Get rid of the gout that's been plaguing me this year, and hopefully do some concerts with. Veryan Weston/Trevor Watts duo/Stephen Grew/Trevor Watts duo/Trevor Watts Quartet/Trevor Watts/Jamie Harris duo and finally Mark Sanders/Trevor Watts duo.

Increasingly get better on the horns I play of course, and keep burrowing out good musical ideas of all kinds. There's always more, and that's what keeps me going. If you look at that list, it's a LOT to choose from.

Oh yes, and stay alive. This is the most important thing.