Sometimes all you have to do is mention a nickname, and others will know exactly who you’re talking about — starting with Bird, Diz, Trane and Prez, and continuing to the present day. When someone says “Tain,” you know they’re talking about one of the most important drummers of the past 40 years.
Jeff “Tain” Watts has performed with the who’s who of jazz: Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Betty Carter, Michael Brecker, George Benson, McCoy Tyner, Harry Connick Jr., Alice Coltrane, Geri Allen, Kenny Garrett… the list goes on and on. He’s truly redefined the way the drums are both played and heard, and he has helped lead the way for drummers moving from the sideman chair to that of the bandleader. With close to a dozen recordings under his own name, Tain is respected as much for his compositions as for his drumming.
The multiple Grammy Award winner is bringing his trio to Hugh’s Room Live on Saturday, March 14.
He joined us for a conversation about what inspires him, how he approaches composition and how he chooses a band.
You’ve been a key member of so many important ensembles, and I know Kenny Kirkland motivated you to compose. Who or what inspired you to begin leading your own group?
It was a natural progression. Once I got a taste of it, I really enjoyed controlling my context, my presentation, just having a more personal say in how I present myself.
You studied classical originally. I’m curious how your classical studies have altered or affected the way you approach playing the kit itself.
It makes you look at the drum set differently. The drum set itself was originally created to assimilate the two or three drummers playing together, so you have that vibration. There’s just a purity to it, when you approach certain things. A lot of the time when I’m interpreting music, I’ll go back and forth with influences and, for lack of a better word, ethnicity in things — what’s the flavour of this tune. While classical music has a flavour, it also has a cleansing effect. You just go for purely the sensibility, without it having to come from a specific place. It’s in there, and I try not to emphasize it too much because everybody comes through some kind of classical discipline, but I definitely had more than most.
There have been comments made by guys that you’ve played with — Wynton, Branford and people like that — about your approach, the way you feel form, that idea of hearing it as an overall composition. Where do you go for your cues when you’re playing?
If I’m playing a song that’s been played by other people, or a standard, I try to think about everything: past arrangements, lyrical content, if it’s from a show, or whatever. That’s what’s cool about jazz, you have all these different vectors to vibe off of. You have what’s been established with the song, then you also have to juxtapose that with what’s happening in the moment. And those can be very different.
When you’re soloing, are you hearing harmony?
Yeah, I’m definitely hearing harmony, hearing the song. Many people will ask, “Are you counting?” But I guess the more you think about the song itself, it liberates you from counting. The song goes a definite way, and that’s a pure way to deal with it.
What do you look for when you’re choosing your bandmates?
A lot of things for me are a reflection of the human condition. I’m just looking for somebody who’s not afraid to be themselves, represent who they are. It frees me up because I know exactly where they’re coming from personally or musically — what they stand for, what their voice is — and I’m able to adjust myself. Dealing with inconsistent people, you don’t know what you’re going to get on a given day, you’re always on your toes. I used to say that I looked for musicians that have been exposed to a lot of music, people who are versed in styles. But I guess on a purer level, it’s just people that really love music. I find more and more as I get older that love of music takes care of a lot of things. It makes you show up on time, it makes you respect the musicians you play with, it makes you do that extra bit of research. Especially with interpreting original music, if somebody brings their song to me, I treat it like I’m a babysitter. I want to give the composition a really good chance of having a good life.
I notice you wrote a couple of vocal tunes, one featuring Kurt Elling on Blue, Vol. 2. How was that process for you? Did you enjoy working with the lyric, and do you plan on doing any more of that?
I probably have about 10 tunes, though bot a lot of them are recorded. I enjoy that, and another impetus for that was working with Spike Lee, working on those soundtracks. The earlier films like Do the Right Thing, the great Bill Lee was writing the music, and I just discovered that he basically has a lyric for every piece of music he’s ever written. Whether the lyric is presented or not, it’s part of the composition and it fleshes it out.