"I became a jazz head!" he recalls. "I was playing all kinds of different music, preparing myself to do any gig that came along. It just so happened I was blessed, and the gig that came along was the Wynton Marsalis Quintet. Wynton always had an idea of potential directions the group could take. Basically, we were looking for logical extensions to the '60s."
Watts left Wynton Marsalis in 1988. After work with George Benson, Harry Connick. Jr. and McCoy Tyner, he joined the Branford Marsalis Quartet in 1989. When NBC's "The Tonight Show" hired Marsalis as musical director in 1992, the saxophone colossus brought along his band. While still on "The Tonight Show," Watts worked with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett for a week at Catalina's in LA; he eventually joined Garrett's band after returning to New York in 1995. Watts also continued to record and tour with Branford Marsalis as well as Danilo Perez, Michael Brecker, Betty Carter, Kenny Kirkland, Courtney Pine, Geri Allen, Joey Calderazzo and Claudia Acuña. All these experiences, along with Tain's growing maturity as a composer and leader, are reflected in the grooves of Bar Talk.
Watts' debut album, Citizen Tain, grew directly from that same aura of grace under fire, captivating the jazz public not only with its drumming, but with its compositions, making Citizen Tain one of 1999's sleeper standouts. The performances swung with a certain Tainish magic, from the acetylene hard bop of "The Impaler" to the Monkish tones of "Muphkin Man," from the Love Supreme styled density of "Attainment" to the Johnny Hodges like charm of "Blutain Jr." Citizen Tain was a joyously coherent debut, a first statement of blistering intent.
Conversely, Bar Talk is a kind of Tain travelogue. Written primarily on the road, Bar Talk is biographical and immediate, a day in the life of Tain. It documents his evolving jazz journey, the next steps from the Chambers of Tain.
"A lot of the tunes were written in hotels in Japan and Europe; some, like 'Vodville,' were ideas I had in my head for a long time. The tunes get a lot better after I record them and the band has been playing them. After you play the tune you finally figure out what to play on it. That informs what you write later on. You never think that your writing is gonna be ahead of your playing, and I am not saying mine is. But in a way, it is."
Along with explosive power, blinding speed and mastery of complex rhythms and time signatures, Jeff "Tain" Watts brings a rare sense of elegance, tried-by-fire composure, and a gritty street sensibility (i.e., funk) to Bar Talk, the eagerly-awaited successor to his highly-acclaimed 1999 debut solo album Citizen Tain. On Bar Talk, Tain's artistic ingenuity expresses itself in his incomparable technique, sweltering sense of swing, and an extraordinary ability to imbue his music with majestic grace and elegant repose.
A true jazz innovator of the 80s, 90s and beyond, Jeff "Tain" Watts never fails to deliver the percussive magic that has been his trademark since his emergence on the contemporary jazz scene. An extension of the ideas and themes first introduced on Citizen Tain--whose rich, playful melodies and engrossing arrangements captivated the jazz public--Bar Talk elaborates those strengths to reveal the celebrated jazz drummer's growth as both composer and percussionist.
Working with an inspired new band--with compositions developed on the bandstands of Branford Marsalis and Michael Brecker as well as his many New York club appearances--Tain probes an even wider and richer array of rhythms on Bar Talk than on his prior work. Through daring arrangements and engrossing solos, Bar Talk explores more exotic terrain while preserving Tain's signature melodic touch and rhythmic assurance. While many drummers might deliver burning rhythms while orchestrating complex arrangements, Tain is one of the very few to do it with such overwhelming individuality.
Bar Talk opens casually, conversationally, with "JC is the Man, Part 1." Here, an arid Wayne Shorter-ish melody belies the song's jocular tone. "Vodville" documents the tale (or is that trail?) of an inebriated barfly taken on a mad journey of soaring tempos and gear-shifting metric surprises. "Stevie in Rio" rides a reggae groove in tribute to soul master Stevie Wonder. "Mr. JJ" documents the first-ever in-studio meeting of tenor titans Michael Brecker and Branford Marsalis, for one of the most powerful horn-blowing sessions in recent memory. "Side B" is a funk sounding-board for guitarist Hiram Bullock, with Marsalis once again onboard. Pianist David Budway's "Kiss" provides a lush ballad for the set, followed by a more elaborate reprise of "JC is the Man, Part 2." Featuring one of the album's three drum solos, Watts pays his respects on "Laughin' & Talkin' (with Higg)," an evocative tribute to late drumming legend, Billy Higgins. The next song finds Watts paying his respects again, this time to his late friend, pianist Kenny Kirkland, on his introspective "Tonality of Atonement." "Like the Rose" closes Bar Talk in true Tainish style, deploying a disarming assortment of grooves from throbbing ska to jagged reggae to 6/4 funk and '50s swing.
"On the first album," says Watts, "each song had its twist or rhythmic thing that was different. A lot of what I wrote came from gigs with cats like Branford. We might want to play something like 'Transition' or 'Lonnie's Lament.' 'Transition' led me to writing 'The Impaler.' 'Lonnie's Lament' to 'Attainment.' That was all to get me started. Now I am listening to everything from Björk to Patsy Cline to more classic jazz things."
And as for Tain's uniquely debonair melodies? "There is a lot to do with harmony," he explains. "When I write, I sing to myself. I already know what it sounds like and if it makes melodic sense before I ever write it down. But I am still working on it. That is why there are a variety of things, I am just trying to find my way."
"Whenever you have a career you have a certain amount of things that are associated with you," Tain remarks. "I want to add to the definition of what that is. Everybody has a home base, musically, and they are dabbling in other things and trying to get stronger in other areas. As a drummer, I want to be more responsible for a wider variety of rhythms. I will get to it all eventually."
Buried in the liner notes, a brief quote attributed to German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche suggests that Tain's search is more than a musical one: "For me they were steps, I have climbed upon them therefore, I had to pass over them. But they thought I wanted to settle down on them...." No longer a young lion, the quote reveals something of the Tainish mind set. "Often when an artist is working on his stuff you have to be alone," Watts explains. "You are thinking about your path and responsibility to the art. Lately I have been thinking about [pianist] Kenny Kirkland's passing, and how I took for granted that I could call him on the phone--that great of a musician--and ask him to play my music. I take very little for granted these days."