In the 1960s, The Rolling Stones led the way in forging a rougher, rootsier style of rock out of R&B, ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and Chicago blues. As the band’s drummer, Charlie Watts helped set a new standard of rhythmic structure for rock, and his tight, anchoring beat was widely imitated. After that, what’s left to do? Jazz, apparently.
Watts is no stranger to jazz. He’s made two recordings of Charlie Parker tunes and a tribute to jazz drummers. In between tours with his “other group,” Watts drums with Tentet, a jazz band of players from the United Kingdom. Comprising three saxes, two trumpets, trombone, vibraphone, piano, bass, percussion, and, of course, Watts on drums, the Charlie Watts Tentet is large enough to swing like a big band on standards such as “Take the A Train,” but small enough to drive at fast be-bop speeds on Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie tunes such as “Tin Tin Deo.”
Playing live at the Blue Note on Tuesday night, the band sounded relaxed, confident and very polished. They stayed within a traditional sound made of soft moods and variegated textures. While the crisply written charts left plenty of room for soloing, the half-expected explosions of rocklike energy from the band never happened. But that hardly mattered. Tentet is not a jazz-rock amalgam, but a straight jazz unit, and the crowd went wild just the same.
After the show, having made it past the outstretched hands of the audience with the help of a cordon made of every waiter in the club, Watts took time away from the other members backstage to talk about his love of jazz.
How do you answer the typical jazz critics’ snobbish view that rock is easier than jazz?
Jazz is filled with people who look down on things. There was a real bitterness with jazz people especially after rock became so popular. But these days, young players are just as impressed with James Brown as with Sonny Rollins.
Does it bother you, that elitism of jazz?
It inhibits me. Not when I’m playing with the band, really, but in general. Jazz is difficult. Half the people I’ve played with I’m terrified of. They’re that good.
It must feel different playing small venues?
You have to be on top at small places. This group got together to play at Ronnie Scott’s [the most famous jazz club in London]. It was packed for both sets and people go there to listen! You can’t hide behind the volume on a small stage.
How is it to work with the guys in this band?
They’re all bandleaders and fabulous soloists and fabulous arrangers.
How do you decide on the playlist for your sets?
We usually like to start out with something by Charlie Parker, one of my favorite players, or by Duke Ellington. But the band works best with originals. Both Gerard [Presencer, trumpet and keyboards] and Peter [King, alto sax] have contributed outstanding tunes and charts. I feel the band really picks up and takes off on these originals.
It’s like with my other band. At first we just played R&B we learned from records, but then Keith and Mick started writing their own tunes, like “Satisfaction.”
It makes a big difference, then, playing your own stuff?
Yeah, a very big difference. But it’s not just that. All these players in the Tentet are fantastic, but if they were in the States they’d be much more famous. That’s just the way it is, the system. It’s too bad, though, that Americans have become so blase about their music, jazz.
Did you see the recent public television series on the history of jazz by Ken Burns?
Yeah, I did. It was great, I thought. The footage was amazing. There was one scene with Dave Tough [legendary 1920s jazz drummer], and there’s only maybe three pieces of footage of him in the entire world. It was worth it just for that.
I liked the shots of everyone dancing.
Jazz music was dance music. Everyone danced to it. But for a while, jazz went off, lost its way. That’s not bad or anything, but it wasn’t until Miles Davis started putting in that Sly Stone sound that jazz had a fresh direction again.
Do you think that musicians playing jazz outside the States are under-recognized?
Definitely. Jazz has become a world music. It’s very open now. You’ll find as good players in, for example, Poland as anywhere. These days, if you play “A Night in Tunisia,” you’re very likely to have an actual Tunisian playing with you!
What do you listen to at home?
The classical radio station. My wife puts on some rock ‘n’ roll sometimes, old stuff. I like that, of course. That’s how I learned to play, listening to R&B records with Alexis Korner and Keith. We loved that whole Chicago sound, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed. We listened for hours.
But you listened to other stuff as well?
Oh, always. I love the Clifford Brown and Max Roach group. It’s just one of the best ever. “Jazz at Massey Hall” is a classic. Roy Haynes is a monster. Elvin Jones gets better and better as he gets older. Don’t know how he does that.
So, you’re a little star-struck yourself at times?
Absolutely. I always feel nervous when I play, thinking of those players. What people do in jazz has such integrity to it, a real honesty.
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