Ernie Watts

Ernie Watts
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Kliman

Ernie Watts

Ernie Watts, Billy Taylor's guest this week, is a chameleon among saxophonists. A Grammy winner in three different categories, the versatile Watts has led straight-ahead combos and R&B fusion outfits. He's toured with the Rolling Stones. And for 20 years, his highly personal saxophone sound was one of the distinctive voices of the Tonight Show band. On this week's edition of Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, Watts and the band take listeners on a musical sojourn to the soul of his music.

Early in the program, Watts talks to Dr. Taylor about how got started playing the saxophone in high school. Later on, Watts explains his mastery at various stylistic idioms with Dr. Taylor, especially in regards to how he approaches a jazz song in comparison to an R&B tune. Watts continues by telling Dr. Taylor that he found inspiration listening to the likes of saxophonists Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. But it revealed very quickly that the legendary John Coltrane is the greatest influence on Watts' playing.

Watts recalls the first time he heard Coltrane play. He compares the musical impact on the same high level as one's first experience of listening to alto saxophonist and bebop deity Charlie Parker. When an audience member asks what, exactly, Watts means by "playing in another key," in reference by Coltrane's playing, it launches the saxophonist into a lyrical reflection - in words - on what gave Coltrane's playing such emotional impact.

Listeners get to hear the expansiveness of Watts' musicality, as he joins Dr. Taylor and the trio for several of Watts' originals. With plenty of room for one of Watts' multilayered, melodic solos, a delicate jazz waltz called "The Poet" is an early offering. Watts tells Dr. Taylor how the tonal colorations and melodic sensibility of pianist Bill Evans inspired the piece.

Other performances include "Lonely Hearts" - a wistful Watts composition evoking the cool jazz of Miles Davis playing "Someday My Prince Will Come." The program concludes with a final, hard-bopping Watts tune, "Joyous Return," with plenty of room to groove.

Don't miss Ernie Watts in our Photo Gallery!