Ernie Watts is less-known than he ought to be through no fault of his own. For two decades he was tucked behind the Tonight Show Band led by another equally lesser-known (tragically so) figure, trumpeter Doc Severinson. Like his boss, Mr Watts is a giant of a saxophonist player. His big-boned tenor graced the ensembles of Charlie Haden for a series of Quartet West albums and the albums of other giants like him: from Gene Ammons, Moacir Santos, Dizzy Gillespie and Donald Byrd among others. He also famously toured with The Rolling Stones and played on Frank Zappa’s album The Grand Wazoo. None of that compares to what he has done and now does on albums he now leads with a German regular quartet. It does bear mention though that Mr Watts also made an explosive record with Jack DeJohnette, Charles Fambrough, Mulgrew Miller (and with Arturo Sandoval on two charts) that forever marked him as one of the most outstanding, yet underrated voices on his instrument. That album was Reaching Up (JVC, 1994).
However, since 2000 Mr Watts’ albums have all been released on his Flying Dolphin and all of them have mostly and mysteriously passed like ships in the night. Although – in all fairness – some recognition came in 2008, when Analog Man (Flying Dolphin) won the Independent Music Award for Best Jazz Album and the recording Dedicated to You (2011) by Kurt Elling, on which Mr Watts gave much of himself, won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Still, the vibrant and liquid lines with which he embellishes melodies – a trait he shares with Sonny Rollins – is best enjoyed on the albums Flying Dolphin released. This 2018 album Home Light is no exception. It has been recorded – as noted with a German quartet. This something eerily similar to what another undervalued musician – except in aficionado circles – the baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber also does.
Remarkably but not surprisingly, as this current recording testifies, Mr Watts is a spritely 73 years old and continues to deliver his hugely powerful soul-soaked music with personality and character that few saxophonists even half his age are capable of. We hear this on the fiery opening chart “I Forgot August”, the heft of which and spills on into “Café Central 2am”. Every piece here is played with the kind of indolent ease, each melodic variation following the other, quite relentlessly, his sumptuous tenor sound brilliantly caught on this recording. Mr Watts also plays alto and soprano saxophones and this instrumental variety enables him to add multiple tone colours and add architectural timbre to other music. Moreover there is a nonchalant quality to his approach which, of course further speaks to his masterful musicianship as evidenced in his homages to Oscar Pettiford (“O.P”) and Joe Henderson (“Joe”).
But it is his monumental Gospel-inflected ballad dedicated to Ndugu Leon Chancler, “Home Light” that is the high-water-mark of this outstanding recording. It is on this profound hymn-like piece that we hear the true majesty of Mr Watt’s voice as he glides through the song with a lived-in character enhancing his phrase-making that combines the fire and brimstone of youth together with the well-honed values of experience. One would also be remiss if one did not acknowledge that the support from pianist Christof Saenger, bassist Rudi Engel and drummer Heinrich Koebberling, who play as one, fully attuned to the vision and masterful artistry of Mr Watts at all times throughout this repertoire.
Track list – 1: I Forgot August; 2: Cafe Central 2am; 3: Distant Friends; 4: Frequie Flyiers; 5: Horizon; 6: O.P. 7: Spinning Wheel; 8: Joe; 9: Home Light
Personnel – Ernie Watts: saxophones; Christof Saenger: piano; Rudi Engel: contrabass; Heinrich Koebberling: drums
Released – 2018
Label – Flying Dolphin Records (FD 1012)
Runtime – 1:08:56