There is something distinctive about the music of Marzette Watts. The fact that he is a painter and an activist first and a musician next must have something to do with it. It takes but one listening of his path-breaking album Marzette Watts & Company and it becomes patently clear that here is a musician gifted in both the aural and spectrally visual nature of music. In other words, Mr. Watts could paint pictures as he set aspects of his experiences to music. More than almost anyone in the revolutionary era of the 1960s, Mr. Watts used colour—but more than that—he wrought tones like a colourist seeking and finding a myriad ways to extract shades and hues the sound he was hearing. And here he was so detailed that the same note could have a myriad of colours, just by shading it differently in context and in the way the harmony entered the mix, changing ever so subtly the shade of a note. This is why he played slowly and allowed notes to penetrate deep into his own psyche and that of the musicians sharing the experience with him. Mr. Watts had also found hidden timbre in the instruments and he coaxed them out as if he came to know this in an almost mystical way.
On this recording Marzette Watts teams up with Byard Lancaster to share the realm of the saxophone. Then adding trombonist and cornet player Clifford Thornton to lay his harmonies across the slanted saxophone melodies and counterpoint, Mr. Watts magnifies the timbre of woodwinds; and when the saxophonists switch to bass clarinet, they add gravitas to the already erudite music. The presence of Sonny Sharrock, whose work in many respects anticipated what Jimi Hendrix would do later, adds a huge amount of visceral energy. This could have spun out of control were it not for the becalming nature of Karl Berger’s vibraphone—trippy, spectral and seeming to come out of that fourth dimension from where Marzette Watts’ music is always threatening to come. Mr. Watts is not spiritual so much as he is magical. In this regard his music seems to burst forth from sprites and dryads; the other-worldly nature fuelled not only by Mr. Berger, but also Henry Grimes and Juni Booth who use the dimly lit arco playing almost from the shadows to add mystery and magic to the music. Both “la” and “Geno” are wonderful testaments to this the spectral nature of the music.
“Backdrop for Urban Revolution” is quite another matter. This is an ambitious canvas quite unlike any that Mr. Watts conceived and played possibly throughout his short lived career. It is suggested that it might take more than merely the African American to participate in this “Urban” revolution. It seems that Mr. Watts was asking that all of America be revolutionised: this is why the music has elements of jazz and blues, country and western. The music was meant to revolutionise all manner of bigotry. To set music as varied as what he did in this chart might have been path-breaking for its day. But then Marzette was a true revolutionary and conceived of things on a grander scale than most. He also “heard” the silence of music better than most. This accounts for his acute sense of space. This is a marvelous record and ought to be enshrined in a place where historic recording are not only stored but listened to and taught for others to have a sense of history that the men and women of the 60’s created.
Track List: la; Geno; Backdrop for Urban Revolution.
Personnel: Marzette Watts: tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet; Byard Lancaster: alto saxophone, flute, bass clarinet; Clifford Thornton: trombone, cornet; Sonny Sharrock: guitar; Karl Berger: vibraphone; Juni Booth: bass; Henry Grimes: bass; J.C. Moses: drums.
Label: ESP-Disk | Release date: April 2012
Should anyone doubt the close connection between American free jazz and the rise of radical black politics in the Sixties they only need to look to the life of saxophonist Marzette Watts. However Watts — who died in early ’98 a week short of his 50th birthday — gets barely a footnote in any jazz histories. His name is usually just as part of a list which includes Ornette Coleman, Marion Brown, Henry Grimes and so on. Even his friend , the poet/writer and activist Le Roi Jones (Amiri Baraka) didn’t mention him in his 1967 book of essays Black Music. At the time Watts was recording for Bernard Stollman’s fledgling ESP-Disk and laid down his album in one day in late ’66.