Trevor Watts – in his own space

Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston in Guelph Photo: Aldon Nielsen

Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston will be in Australia this June, as guests of the Darling Harbour Jazz and Blues Festival.  While in Australia, he’ll also be appearing at a number of venues across the country (details at the bottom of this interview). A founding member of seminal free improvisation group The Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1965, Trevor Watts has enjoyed a musical path that’s uniquely his own.  Intrigued by the relative quiet around the pending arrival of a man who we’d been told is effectively a member of ‘British jazz royalty’, we put our ears on and had a listen to some of his music, and did some research. Then we roped Gerry Koster (Jazz Up Late and ABC Jazz) in to help us frame some questions. Thanks to the generosity of Gerry, and of course thanks to Trevor Watts for taking the time to provide us with some very thoughtful answers – we’re able to present you with some intriguing insights. Dare we say this is probably a tour that fits the category of ‘not to be missed’ (details at the end of the interview).

Jazz-planet: In the latter half of last century, European musicians began to move away from the influence of American jazz – how did this movement manifest itself in Britain and how were you involved?

Trevor Watts: The founder members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in Britain were the drummer John Stevens, trombonist Paul Rutherford and myself Trevor Watts on saxophones. Sadly Paul and John are no longer with us. This happened around 1965, at a time in London where it was very creative. Everyone had the feeling they could do something original and different, it was in the air. And we  even did a gig at a ‘flower power’ underground gathering in Tottenham Court Road in 1967 with Paul and bassist Barry Guy. This was opposite the fledgling Pink Floyd, and was an example of how it was all mixed up together for a short while, and not put into neat little boxes. Bit of a horror show for recording companies and agents, so they quickly exerted their influence on the situation. But for that short while it was a very creative scene. Given this atmosphere, we had our own space in the middle of Theatre land where we could experiment as many days of the week as we would want to. The place was called The Little Theatre Club and is featured in a BBC 4 documentary called Jazz Britannia. This was in St Martins Lane. So we could use the theatre when the play had finished. This place was also a watering hole for actors at the end of their nights work, many of them well know in films and theatre. Also it was a place that if anyone was in town and wanted to join in they could. So we played with Don Cherry, Anthony Braxton and Chick Corea amongst many others.

When we began we were very obviously jazz influenced. This changed almost overnight when John Stevens came in one night and said ‘forget that way of playing let’s try this’. So this was the beginning of a very ‘pointillistic’ way of playing I call it. Almost approaching it like we were playing another drum, and trying to react in a way that was very staccato in the main at first. It was a collective music, so in that way referred more to New Orleans than the later jazz. Nothing linear was played until much later when the ‘style’ of music opened up a little after the austere beginnings. It was an experiment to strip everything down to its bare bones to a certain extent.

Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston – MÓZG FESTIVAL – November 2011

Rhythmic thrust however was always part of that music, and still is. That training in that area gave me what I have today in my playing. An ability to react quickly, but in my own space. Veryan Weston, who has taken an interest in very similar things, also loves rhythm, and so it’s a strong part of our duo music today. Not linear time, but rhythm. Our music has moved on from those times, and incorporates more elements like melody and different approaches. I think that the discipline of that style has informed the playing of people like guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker. Given that nothing is developed in isolation. It was the relationship to the drum that helped bring this about. This language is firmly embedded into the overall language of improvised music that is played all over the World today. I think we can claim that for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Other groups were AMM for instance who used electronics, noise and radio at that time, and influenced some of the Rock groups like Pink Floyd, and especially with Keith Rowe’s guitar style. Keith played later on with myself  in my Amalgam group of 1979/80, and that group influenced Sonic Youth amongst others.

J-P: Is there a British jazz sound?

Trevor Watts Drum Orchestra 1992 Photo: Margaret Richards
Trevor Watts Drum Orchestra 1992 Photo: Margaret Richards

TW: I think today there are so many people incorporating and trying so many different influences from folk musics of the world as well as classical mixed with standard jazz practice or not, that it’s really hard to say. There was a kind of British sound in the days of Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, but the over-riding influence on their music was American. In some ways I think it’s a healthy thing. Because if there was a British sound it would mean we were kind of all aiming for the same or a similar thing, and it’s much more diverse than that.

J-P: How do you find the scene in Britain now?

TW: Personally I don’t know a lot about the scene. There are a lot of good players who are very accomplished technically, but I still think the infrastructure is quite weak. Not that many places to play. Sure there’s hundreds of pubs with music, some of it jazz, but still not easy for players to sustain a living from the venues available, and of course we have more population now and more musicians, but not necessarily more places to play. However the London Jazz Festival and clubs like the Vortex and Café Oto have a very adventurous policy whereby people can hear music like our duo for instance as well as more ‘straight ahead’ styles; more places that incorporate the full range of jazz or jazz-related musics. So it’s healthier than before, I think. This also attracts many young people to listen to people like Veryan & me and others from that era playing in our own styles that we have developed over many years; a new generation finding it stimulating and interesting. That’s exciting to me.

J-P: How and when did you meet Veryan Weston?

Trevor Watts playing saxophone and Veryan Weston seated at the piano
Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston in Guelph Photo: Aldon Nielsen

TW: It was Veryan’s sister Armorel who found us the Little Theatre Club to play in in the 1960’s. So I first heard Veryan there as a very young man. He had been classically trained as a musician, and that was fairly obvious. That kind of training will give you a lot of facility, but it’s almost the opposite of improvising. Nevertheless he’s worked through all that over the interim years and is a consummate improviser and player. I then asked him into my first Moire Music 10 piece group that I had written compositions for in around 1982, and he played in that band and the subsequent 14 piece version of that until around 1990. In between we played some duo sessions, but never to the point of it being a regular thing. However, Veryan was always a good friend, and I think the thing that gave us the idea to continue was being asked by Martin Davidson of Emanem records to do a recording, and that was 6 Dialogues recorded in 2001 Emanem 4069. We also played at Martin’s ‘Freedom of the City’ Festival the following year. It seemed so natural to be playing together, and it’s been that way ever since.

We genuinely improvise. Neither of us know what the other is going to play, nor does Veryan anticipate what I will do next or vice versa. However it’s to do with total trust and confidence that we’ll shape the music in some way. Which way only reveals itself in the moment of playing. Very exciting, very real, but also very together, not messy at all. That is also to do with the time we have put in individually and together, and the concentration and quick reaction to what is being played in the moment.

J-P: You are known for your versatility as a musician and I gather that the music you’ll be playing when you tour here with Veryan is on the free and avant garde end of the spectrum. What draws you to this more ‘out’ style of music?
TW: First of all I’d like to make it clear that I love ALL music that stimulates me whatever style is carrying the music is immaterial. If it’s something that comes from the heart, then I can relate to it. That’s as much to do with classical music as ethnic music as jazz. I am not stuck on the one thing for inspiration, and in any case nowadays look inside for that inspiration. My career has been a long one. When I play this current music, this is where I am really AT as a player. If I was playing in a more straight ahead style there’s all that baggage that goes with it. Tons of it. People think they know what’s good and bad and judge it by the same criteria as they do a football match. They cannot do that with this. It’s like abstract painting, it either does something for you or not, but until you actually expose yourself to enough of it, and lend yourself to it for a while, you’ll never get close to it. There’s a lot of improvising around now as well as what you call avant garde. There is a lot of not very good stuff around, same as straight ahead jazz, but also if you happen upon what I shall call the good stuff, I think music of any style can move you. So I do urge people to come along and listen to Veryan and me because of the skill and integrity we bring to the music, and the knowledge and study of all kinds of music. I mean I spent 15 years with my Moire Music group with African musicians. I have just done a project last year with Djembe master Adama Drame in Burkina Faso and that was great. But what it doesn’t have is that closeness and real inventiveness that say two good players who know each other well can bring to it. After all, ALL music is improvised at its source. So people are catching that creativity as it happens. They are golden moments. Ones that you cannot repeat with the same feeling once you’ve learnt them and honed them. It’s the very essence of the music. All music.

J-P: Integrity, your own voice, being true to yourself, authenticity – these seem to be core ideas for you, based on what I’ve read. It sounds like you’ve chosen a path of no compromises, musically. Would you agree? And what advice would you give a young musician heading into the world with that approach.
TW: I would have to say be ready for rejection, and learn how to handle that because what you believe in is integral to yourself as a human being. Be aware that although not necessarily so, it could be a difficult path.  It all depends on whether what you play has some kind of instant appeal or not as much as anything. I think there’s a tendency for some musicians to say ‘if I don’t do this by 30, 40 or 50 I’ll give up, it won’t happen’. But life can be longer than you think. So just deal with it every day.

Trevor Watts playing tenor saxophone
Trevor Watts caught in the act of playing solo. ‘A rare thing for me.’ Photo: Irmgard Huppe

Every day I do some music of some kind because I need to, like I need to eat food. No big deal, I just get on with it. Because of that it becomes over time quite natural to just play and explore your own things. Also though, it’s important at first to play and gain experience in any situation, any type of music or whatever, and try and fit some of the personal things you are developing into that structured style. Nothing is wasted, even though it may feel like it sometimes. Sure I always wanted to play more, but you often see quite good players in a certain style who work a lot, but a little bit bored of it. So keep on looking, and most of all it’s a lifetime’s learning. If you have that approach and philosophy, the fact that you’re never actually THERE but going somewhere is the most exciting thing. Try to allay the feeling of frustration you may have at the thought of not being where you think you should be. Once I am where I think I should be, then it always seems time to move on, or else it can become boring. It’s in the travelling not the arriving where all the possibilities are, because a lot of great music has an accident at its core, and so you should leave yourself open most of all. An accident in music can only be developed if your ear knows what to do with it. It’s that feeling of ‘Oh I’ve made a mistake’ that can stop you thinking of the resolution of that so called mistake. Your head’s full of ‘mistake’ rather than ‘opportunity’ to find something different.

It’s in the travelling not the arriving where all the possibilities are, because a lot of great music has an accident at its core

J-P: At an age when many people might like to see themselves retired, you’re still at it. What drives you?
TW: I think it’s being brought up in Yorkshire at a time of heavy industry. Not passing the 11+ exam and leaving school at just 15 with the prospect of working in a mill or factory. That 11+ test was very unfair, and condemned many a person to settle for a lesser life. I was determined not to be a victim, and found that the music my father brought back from the States and Canada where he lived in the early 30’s which was jazz – Ellington, Tex Beneke, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio, etc etc. It was a big inspiration to me as we had very little ‘live’ music at that time in the North. I think this determination has stayed with me to this day. To achieve the best I can. Why settle for less?

Some people seem to play their best from an early age, but mine, I feel has been a steady improvement all through my playing life. I have also always been inspired by say classical musicians from India who continue well into old age, and with a freshness that their continuing involvement and interest gives them and the music. Or when I see quite old people in Africa still able to dance in a very lively fashion. Why give up, why slow down, what’s the point, we’re only here for a short while, even though sometimes it does feel too long. I often wondered at what point, you know, where is the cross over point from doing something to not doing it?

J-P: Is there any music you are hearing now that makes you sit up and take notice? If so, what is that music, and what is compelling about it?

It could be anything. But usually at that point of hearing something unexpected from the radio, or a snatch of some music coming from a car or whatever. That element of surprise is what it is, even if you’ve heard it in the past. It may be a beautiful duet from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti or hearing Cannonball Adderley or Coltrane after not listening to them for a long time and realising how great that music is. Also it’s quite amazing that music that once made you sit up and listen, doesn’t quite do it any more, maybe because of the familiarity. It’s part of the human condition. I know Veryan & I have that effect for some people simply because even we don’t know what’s about to be played. So the music can take unexpected twists and turns.

There’ll always be the cynics that don’t get any of it, but then they don’t deserve it!  You have to lend yourself to the music, whatever it is, and you’ll get more out of it, simply because you’re putting more in.


Hear some sound samples here >

Read what Trevor said about his work on in 2004
Trevor says: ‘The AAJ article was 2004. Maybe a little old, but the sentiments within it with regards to playing I couldn’t put together much better than that. Of course perspectives have changed since then, but the core is the same. In 2012 I’d probably use less obvious conviction and would write about those things in a more relaxed way, with more knowledge I think.’

See and hear Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston in this YouTube video
Trevor says: ‘The Moire Music Drum Orchestra was an important group for me and although the music of Veryan & me is totally different, we both use that rhythmic aspect in our improvisations.

Trevor Watts (saxophones) and Veryan Weston (piano) – two tours and a new double CD release

Tour in Australia and New Zealand – June 6th to 20th 2012 inclusive

The tour is based around the Darling Harbour Jazz Festival in Sydney, Australia. This is a festival that takes place over 3 days and attracts around 350,000 visitors as it is also a free-to-the-public event organised by the Harbour authority in Sydney. The performance by Watts and Weston takes place on June 9th 2012 between 2p.m. and 3 p.m. in Tumbalong Park. Sydney.
In the evening they have another performance organised by SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association) at the Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre, Sydney. This begins around 8 p.m.
Amongst other concerts they play Bennett’s Lane Jazz Club in Melbourne on June 17th which will be recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Finishing at Ellington’s Jazz Club in Perth on June 19th before flying home.
From June 11th to 14th 2012 they will be in Auckland, New Zealand for a concert and master class.

Tour in the USA – July 3rd to 16th 2012 inclusive

They start the tour by playing at John Zorn’s club THE STONE in New York City on July 4th 2012. The other group on the bill will be led by saxophonist Charles Gayle. Then July 6th – Columbia Museum of Art, S Carolina, July 8th Timucua White House, Orlando, Florida, July 11th Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, July 12th The Barking Legs Theatre, Chattanooga, July 13th Chapel of the Downtown Presbyterian Church, Nashville
July 15th The Windup Space, Baltimore before heading home.
New double CD to be issued soon on Hi4HeadRecords is called Dialogues in Two Places and was recorded ‘live’ last year at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario, Canada and the Robinwood Concert House, Toledo, Michigan USA. We’ll be promoting this on the tours.