"The lightness of being whilst at it’s most intense." - an interview with Trevor Watts

Bartosz Adamczak

Trevor Watts belongs to the pioneers of british improvised scene, although he doesn’t really like to apply national tags to the music. In 2018 Watts was visiting Poland, for Jazz Jantar Festival which was as good an occasion as any to ask him a few questions. We tackled some diverse topics in a short mail conversation and you can really something about his earliest influences, some exotic touring experiences, appreciation for rhythmic expression and current projects. Also a short tip about what’s good for stomach bacteria.

-I’ve read as you grew up you had a chance to listen to a lot jazz music, thanks to the fact your father spend some time in Canada. I imagine those must have been mostly swing, bop and big band recordings – what were your favourites? Who would you consider made a particular impression and if those classic jazz recordings have influenced your playing?

My Dad lived in Ontario in the late 30’s and also visited the USA. This is where he developed a love for Jazz, and particularly black jazz but not only that. Consequently I was listening to a lot of recordings he had bought in the 1930’s. 1940’s and 50’s whilst I was growing up Halifax, located in what was then the working class Industrial area of Britain in the West Riding of Yorkshire. So not a lot of exposure to live music of any kind at that time. It must have been an unusual household as I was listening to Nellie Lutcher/Duke Ellington/Tex Beneke/Fats Waller etc, etc and many more like that. Of course being a child and exposed to these sounds I took for granted, and so I didn’t think of it as anything particularly special. And in fact when I heard Bill Haley in 1954 playing Rock around the Clock it blew me away because it was something quite different. It wasn’t until a little later, and when I started to buy my own LP’s that I was influenced in some way. And then decided I wanted to play an instrument rather than work in a factory, and so my parents got whatever they could afford which was a second hand Beuscher alto sax. I wanted to play like some of the players I heard on those recordings. And so I also started to teach myself how to play and also how to read music.

The first influence for me of any note was the alto player Ernie Henry. He was the lead alto in Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, but he made only a few recordings under his own name, all of which I bought. He died at about 35 years old, so there’s not much of his small group playing. However he impressed me with his raw, visceral sound and distinctly personal way of playing. Even then I was looking for people who had their own way of playing, their own little personal peculiarity or turn of phrase, and Ernie Henry sounded like Ernie Henry. I then started to be influenced by people like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane and Ornette and so on. But what I took from all of this was to be yourself. Find a way of being YOU, that’s what listening to Parker did for me. He wasn’t saying play like me, he was saying find your own voice, this is mine?? An important lesson I learned very early on. Of course I tried to play like these people, but quickly realized that this was o.k. as an exercise in understanding, but not for me as a definitive way of playing. I had to have the courage to play more what came naturally to me. To stand or fall by that in the long run. I am o.k. with that whichever way it comes out.

Your Moire Orchestra was one of many UK bands which was built around South African musicians, that included afro-rock groups like Osibisa or Assagai and jazz units like Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood or Louis Moholo’s bands. Can you tell us bit more on how do you remember those Africa – UK collaborations, how did African musicsians influence the british music scene all-around and free improv in particular? How do you feel your Moire Orchestra and Drum Orchestra fit into the whole picture?

The question you ask is basically not correct. Moire Music was not based around South African musicians at all. The first Moire Music was a 10 piece in which I had musicians like Lol Coxhill & Larry Stabbins on saxes, Veryan Weston on piano, and African musicians like Nana Tsiboe from Ghana and it is true that I had one S African in the band. Bassist Ernest Mothle. Alongside that I formed the Original Trevor Watts Drum Orchestra (Afro European improvised music) with a line up of Nana Tsiboe Perc from Ghana, Mamadi Kamara Perc, from Sierra Leone, Ernest Mothle and then Irish drummer Liam Genockey and Folk violinist Peter Knight CD “BURUNDI MONDAY”. In fact I had a different take on things than a lot of players like Elton Dean and Keith Tippett having been in London a little longer as I am also older than them, and so had been concentrating on the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Amalgam in the early 60’s. I heard McGregors Blue Notes, but to me they were not doing anything exceptional, it sounded like they were trying to play American Be Bop in a way (Remember I had been familiar with the music since the 1940’s. How many more musicians on the scene could say that. So I’d heard a LOT of stuff by the 60’s). I felt at the time that we were further along the path with groups like AMM also. Not to take away from the fact that they did influence a lot of the younger musicians, but they also absorbed a lot of what was going on in early 60’s London, and that influenced them as much as anything else. Written history is a strange thing, as things that are written tend to have more of an influence and if repeated by other writers later on, then take on what people to believe is how it was, but of course everything is more complicated than that, which also makes it more interesting.

NO, what I wanted to do was link in with African players who were traditional players, and so when I expanded my Moire Music Drum Orchestra I used players from that traditional thing. Nana Tsiboe/Nana Appiah/Jojo Yates/Paapa Mensah and Nee Daku Patato all being from Ghana, which has a much stronger West African drumming tradition than South Africa, which really has a strong vocal tradition. I was after the drumming at the time. It is true that Nee Daku played with Osibisa, but none were Jazz players of any kind, and all understood the tradition well. That band lasted 15 years, and we never spoke about what we should do, it evolved in a very natural way, as that was the way I had intended it to be. A good example is ECM 1449 “A Wider Embrace” which incidentally has just been re released in S Africa due to demand and is not available in Europe officially. Though I have some copies. I was recently told that it was very popular in the Dance Halls of Durban in the 1990’s and I had never realized that until recently.

You ask how did S African musicians influence free improv which is assuming it MUST be that way round, but I assure you I think free improv influenced the S African players as well to be freer in what they did than what they were doing when they arrived. You see, we had the Little Theatre Club in London dedicated to open music making and the first time I heard Chris McGregor express himself in that way completely was at that club, before then I’d only heard him in the context of his band. I think this is something important to redress that balance a little. And what would make you think that no influence went that way?? It would be a very curious thing if it never happened and would suggest closed minds, and I think their minds were open to it all.

Moire Music and Drum Ork followed no trends, so it didn’t really fit into the picture to be honest. But I kind of liked it that way. Being on the outside. I think if people do check the music out they’ll find something really happening and strong and as much as anything on the scene at that time.

Moire Orchestra’s first LP was released in 1985 and it has Veryan Weston on piano. Over 30 years later Veryan is among your most frequent collaborators, in duo and other musical settings. What is your perspective on what kind of musical or extra-musical connection is required to play together for that long, how does this connection evolve over the course of 3 decades?

Veryan & I have developed a close bond and musical playing relationship. This is based on mutual interest in all ways of playing, not just freely, but we both compose (I have recently written a choral piece and Veryan has many written pieces). We both love all kinds of ways of playing, the rhythmic and melodic thing, the abstract thing etc. We love all genres of music and the main criteria is if we think it is played well it then will excite us. It seems a bit strange to me to limit ones self to just one way of doing things as the different ways of playing all influence each other and I think leads to a more, what I call, holistic way of understanding music making. We have all that in common.

Consequently when we play together we genuinely improvise from the very beginning to the end, whatever comes up in whatever way. I love Veryan’s modern take on Boogie Woogie with his left hand. Beautiful. I will accept everything he plays, and take it on and try to arrive at a resolution or development of it all, and he will do the same for me. Complete trust. Just following our muses. A rare thing, but a beautiful thing, and something I am very interested in. There are other players I play with in duo form Stephen Grew the pianist and also more recently Dieter Ulrich the Swiss drummer. It feels similar in many ways, only of course these relationships are not quite as established yet. But I am certain that every time I play with any of these people we will play good music together.

The evolution with Veryan is in the fact that we play differently every time, but now we  have made a more conscious decision to develop another duo project we call QUANTUM ILLUSION where Veryan also plays an electronic keypad. Interesting because some of the sounds match the saxophone in a more visceral way and give it another thing.  So we are now dealing with different sounds as well within the music. It feels like an expansion of what we did with piano and sax, and quite different. I would like everyone to hear what we are doing in this area of the music.

One of my favourite music memories was the first tenure in Krakow of Barry Guy New Orchestra, on the final night in Alchemia, with almost the whole band squeezing on stage. I remember that after the first encore finished you kept the whole band on stage introducing a melodic riff on saxophone that was both very humorous and danceable. I feel you can same the same on many of your Moire Orchestra records. What is your perspective on humour and dance rhythm in improvised music?

Ah yes I remember that. I took a chance on playing the rhythmic thing. I wasn’t sure how the players would take it. But if we are all open human beings then we’ll make something of it, and we did. Yes, I did that on purpose because sometimes I think players take themselves too seriously, which makes it hard for me to take them seriously if you know what I mean.

If you listen to Moire Music Drum Orchestra “Live in Latin America” there’s an example of a rhythmic improvised way of playing, and what it did was enable us to really connect with the people (audience) whilst playing anything that came up at the time, working together to make something good. I love rhythm, and have studied it a lot, and so therefore it was a pleasure for me, and for all of us within that group. You can hear the excitement from the audiences in Mexico and Venezuela, and we were playing whatever we wanted. It wasn’t salsa, it wasn’t particularly African, it wasn’t Jazz, but it was all of those things.

So we had an intensity and real fun at the same time, the fun comes from playing together for your life. Energy, not desperation, but lightness of being whilst at it’s most intense. That’s the key. Some players over egg the pudding as we say and play with intensity but anger too and up tightness. The thing is to be totally relaxed also at the most intense times. This allows for humour of the right kind. Not some silly interlude, but humour can be intense too in it’s own way. There should always be room for that. Although having said this. I don’t make humour a major part of what I do, or even think I must include it. But it’s as valid an emotion as any other.

You have toured for many decades all over the world – I know the infrastrcture, venues for improvised music, it is not always what one would expect. What are the craziest places you remember playing?

I wouldn’t call them crazy places. But unusual places for playing the music. One was in the middle of the Gobi desert on the sand dunes with an audience mainly of nomadic people of Mongolia. It was at the Roaring Hooves Festival there. Another was in Sudan at the Khartoum Festival where I was invited by these two African Sudanese to play with them at a concert in the evening. They had a very large Xylophone that was played by both of them at the same time. Alongside of that was another player with something like the Kenyan harp. They taught me this tune which I learned, and that was the one to be played in the evening.

Comes evening concert time and again it was a desert scenario, but flat, no dunes. Loads of people. All the Mullahs and dignitaries sitting in the front row. However as well as the Xylophone, they had a lot of other drummers, singers etc, so about 30 players in the end. Came time for me to play the tune, then I took off on a solo, started to come down and they just waved and said MORE!! So I kept on taking it out. The last occasion was in Colombia in around 1995. It was a dangerous place then and we had to play in the open air in the grounds of a hotel in Bogota, This was the Drum Orchestra, the other two occasions I was alone, and in Mongolia with percussionist Jamie Harris. They let the crowd in, and then of course locked us into the space for safety. I’ll never forget that we were taking the music out rhythmically and in every way, and I started to solo and really push it, the more I took it out the more they cheered and clapped throughout the music, it was such an amazing occasion. A “one off”. The excitement was huge. It seemed to be something that really connected at the time. Never experienced anything like it since.

Oh yes. I can remember one more. It was in Sicily at a festival called Palermo Pop with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the 1970’s. It took place inside a football stadium. The reason why we got the gig was that when Julie Tippett’s left the Pop scene (she was famous as Julie Driscoll) she was interested in getting involved in this music with us, (her first forays into improvised music) and so to all intents and purposes, to that audience, she was still a pop star. We played completely improvised SME style music and suddenly people started to throw newspapers filled with dirt at us on the stage. We carried on playing, but moved back a bit to try to avoid the missiles. At the same time the rest of the audience were cheering and shouting Julie’s name. We’d completely split the audience. Really exciting to be involved in that. The improv scene has become latterly rather much more tame in that respect. When we’d finished playing, the next band came on and started to play. Maybe one or two notes. And everyone threw newspaper with dirt at them. It’s the only time I’ve been locked in the dressing room for safety. Half the people trying to get to us wanted to do some harm, and the other half wanted to celebrate Julie. Now that was crazy. There’s probably more, but my typing hands are aching.

I’ve often wonder how much private time and space is left in professional musician’s life, given the rigors of touring, practise etc. Do you have any hobbies not related to music that you can dedicate your time to?

Not much time for anything else. I am always messing around with music every day I can. But I do have an allotment at the bottom of the garden and grow vegetables. It keeps me fit in other ways, and the veg are delicious. So it helps keep me healthy. I grow in an organic way too.

Last but not least, you’ve made a few visits to Poland in recent years, what is your favourite polish food?

I think I have to say Piroki (dumplings) but I have also learnt the benefits of fermented foods as well. Good for the stomach bacteria. I have also enjoyed Poland for the people and their love of music. That’s a big thing for me more than food. And I am hugely looking forward to my next visit in Gdansk at Jazz Jantar!