Trevor Watts: ‘What I hear today seems to be a lot of cloning’

    The veteran free improviser was inspired to play jazz because it seemed to represent the freedom to be yourself

    Trevor Watts at Wakefield Jazz on 19 November 2021. Photo © Brian Payne

    Now 82, saxophonist Trevor Watts retains the same passion for creating music and collaborating with other players as he did when he led pioneering bands like the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Amalgam in the 60s and 70s and Moiré Music in the 80s and beyond.

    “I am finding the latest personal musical evolution, Eternal Triangle, very exciting,” he says of the trio he recently formed with keyboard player Veryan Weston and percussionist Jamie Harris. “The music is rich in melody and rhythm and improvisation and the group is developing all the time – a lot of people liken it to the early Moiré Music. We are planning to record as soon as we feel it’s the right time and when we get there it should be wonderful.”

    ‘We accept any idea that pops up between us in the moment and try and make something of it so the music is always fresh. It’s truly the sound of surprise. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be?’

    Veryan Weston previously played with Watts in Moiré Music and has performed as a duo with the saxophonist. “It was our friendship and long association that made it a joy,” explains Watts of his duo with Weston. “But also we have a very similar approach to music making. We accept any idea that pops up between us in the moment and try and make something of it so the music is always fresh. It’s truly the sound of surprise. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be?”

    Percussionist Harris has played with Watts in the Celebration Band and also as a duo. “Jamie came along to a workshop I did in 2000 as a singer-guitar player,” says Watts. “I couldn’t think of a vocal idea for what I wanted to do but I had a drum so I said: ‘Can you play this rhythm?’ He took to it like a duck to water. We used to get together three times a week for years and it became a mentoring process from myself to him. I found that Jamie was very quick in absorbing the way to play a groove or rhythm and assimilating ideas.”

    I ask Watts how he presents his compositions for Eternal Triangle to Weston and Harris. “I usually don’t verbalise. I work out a rhythmic and melodic plan, usually with some chordal aspect to it, but I leave it to them what they want to contribute once we have established the basic compositional aspects of the written material – even that can change though. If a better idea pops up, we use it so everything is always open to development or change. Like life itself!”

    Watts’ first exposure to jazz was through his father. “He had worked in Canada in the late 20s and early 30s and he brought back recordings – Fats Waller, Nellie Lutcher, Tex Beneke, Duke Ellington … so I was hearing that stuff from a very early age. And of course where I lived in Halifax there was nothing like it. Eventually I started to listen to Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Ernie Henry, Sonny Rollins, Shorty Rogers etc etc and on up to Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane and so on. It was a voyage of discovery. I never met any other people into jazz … I was in isolation. And so, when it came to playing, although I studied people like Charlie Parker, I really took it that he was saying: ‘Be yourself.’ I had the feeling that that was the goal.”

    So many jazz musicians in recent decades have studied the music to degree level. Watts didn’t have that option. “There were no music schools when I left school at 15, a working-class boy in the industrial north. I needed to find a way out from ending up in a dead-end job and music looked like the answer. And jazz was the music that enthralled me. I needed to find my own voice but what I hear [from college-educated musicians] today seems to be a lot of cloning. Good techniques and playing through the changes in a skilled way [but] thinking for oneself is best – and keep[ing] well away from prejudices of any kind.”

    Having moved to London Watts found himself playing in various contexts, including in the band of English blues singer Long John Baldry. “We often played the Marquee and one night Sonny Boy Williamson was the guest,” he recalls. “I remember that he hardly ever came out of a solo after 12 or 16 bars – it could be anywhere! So when it came to my solo time I thought: ‘Great, I’m free!’ I played what I wanted. Sonny Boy was looking at me a little quizzically but he never said anything!”

    The British improv scene: ‘There was a lot of politicking. Players desperate to show – and say – that their way was the way and so on. It became quite intolerant’

    Watts became a crucial figure on the British free-improv scene forming the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with drummer John Stevens, for example. His memories of that scene seem ambivalent, however. “There was a lot of politicking. Players desperate to show – and say – that their way was the way and so on. It became quite intolerant.”

    For a musical style that seemed so revolutionary it does seem odd that some of its exponents stayed fixed in that style for the rest of their careers. Watts’ playing, however, evolved as he pursued other creative avenues. “I remember John Stevens saying that a key to success was playing the same thing all the time,” says Watts. “I think some players took that on board. But for me it was always about playing something different [and making] new discoveries. I have always had a very eclectic approach and I wanted to play what I wanted to play.”

    In 1971 Watts played the Palermo Pop Festival with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and singer Julie Driscoll, not long after the latter’s hit-making days with Brian Auger and the Trinity. Free improv and a pop music festival crowd proved a challenging combination. “We were sitting down at that gig. Half the crowd were chanting: ‘Julie, Julie!’ And half were throwing dirt from the football pitch at us. The stuff was falling short so we didn’t flee, we simply shoved our chairs back and played the whole performance. It was actually very exciting and we were locked in the dressing room after the concert until it was safe to come out. I wouldn’t have missed that for anything!”

    Watts formed Moiré Music in 1982, incorporating West African music and other elements. Did he have to study African music and become expert in it to lead that band? “I listened to a lot of music from around the world, traditional African music of all kinds being one of them. But you don’t need to be an expert. Listening will give you a lot of what you want to know – and improv is all about listening. When I first had a jam session with the Ghanaian drummer Nana Tsiboe I heard this phrase he played and something about the way it was played, I took [it] we were about to end. And sure enough we stopped together, on the button! And I’ll never forget what Nana said afterwards: ‘It’s nice to play with someone who listens.’”

    Audiences reacted differently to the music that Watts was now playing in place of the free improv of earlier days. “Dancing was part of it and when you see people dancing to what you’re playing it’s very inspiring. I remember one concert in Bogota, Colombia, during the insurgency there. It was packed and the more we took the music ‘out’, the more they showed their appreciation, cheering and clapping loudly during the music. It felt very special and could only happen within a certain time and place like this one. And of course we reacted to what the audience were giving us which was everything they had.”

    Moiré Music also played in Burma. “It was always important to me to take the group to unstable places,” declares Watts. “We played a concert at the Inya Lake Hotel. [Military dictator] Ne Win lived on an island in the middle of that lake and when we were at our loudest a searchlight came on from across the water and targeted the room we were in. This was an attempt at intimidation and some of the Burmese started to drift away. But we played even louder and stronger!

    “And in Mandalay we [were] told the secret police were within the performance space. Our little bit of subversion was to play [Bob Marley’s] Redemption Song. Nana Tsiboe sang the words. The reward was to see the faces of those people who were being restricted light up.”

    ‘I first met Peter Knight while working at Boosey & Hawkes music publishers in London in the 60s. He was selling violins, I was a music proofreader – and John Stevens was working in the music hire library’

    Curiously, amongst Watts’s frequent collaborators have been drummer Liam Genockey and fiddler Peter Knight, both best known for their work with folk-rockers Steeleye Span. “I first met Peter while working at Boosey & Hawkes music publishers in London in the 60s. He was selling violins, I was a music proofreader – and John Stevens was working in the music hire library. One day I said to Pete to come and listen to John and I play in a pub. He came – and stated it was a load of self-indulgent rubbish!”

    In 1982 Watts and Knight ran into each other after a gap of years. Knight now declared that he wanted to learn about improvisation. “So the next day I went round to Pete’s house and that’s how we started. With Liam we started to play together in Amalgam. I loved [Knight and Genockey’s] musicianship and I was always interested in putting things together that on the surface didn’t fit the mould of jazz.”

    I can’t resist asking Watts if he has ever gone to a Steeleye Span gig. “Yes, a show in Worthing. What did I think? Load of self-indulgent rubbish, of course!” he jokes.

    Despite how remarkable Watts’ career has been, he has in the past said that he finds it hard to get gigs in Britain. Does he actually feel under-appreciated? “Of course appreciation is wonderful and I enjoy it when it happens. But I am not doing this for people’s appreciation,” states this most artistically dedicated and uncompromising of musicians. “[I’m doing it] to arrive at as deep an understanding of the music as I can muster in my lifetime.”

    Eternal Triangle play the Vortex, London on 22 December