Black History Month Celebrates: Ernie Watts

ERNIE WATTS QUARTET – “HOME LIGHT”
Flying Dolphin Records

Ernie Watts, tenor saxophone; Christof Saenger,piano; Rudi Engel,acoustic bass; Heinrich Koebberling,drums.

Ernie Watts is one of our heroic African American jazz cats, one I’m proud to celebrate during Black History Month. Ernie was born in Norfolk, Virginia on October 23, 1945 and his birth name is Ernest James Watts. He is another great alumnus from the world-respected, Berklee College of Music and proficient in soprano, alto and tenor saxophones. This Berklee music school opportunity was thanks to a Down Beat magazine scholarship. It didn’t take long for people to notice the flare, style and exciting energy that Watts brings to any bandstand. Early in his career, in the 1960s, Ernie Watts was hired by Buddy Rich to become part of his big band. He played alto saxophone in Buddy’s band. Next, he was scooped up to become part of Oliver Nelson’s group and eventually found his way into Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band on NBC television. That prestigious gig lasted twenty years.

The wonderful thing about Ernie Watts is how versatile he is on his horns. He’s a proficient jazz and bebop player, but he’s just as comfortable playing on a Marvin Gaye or Chaka Khan album. As a studio session musician, he was a very busy horn player, adding his powerful playing to recordings by pop icon, Paul Anka, and in the next breath, playing on Willie Bobo’s 1977 album, “Tomorrow is Here.” He recorded on Kenny Burrell’s Fantasy Record release, “Both Feet on the Ground” in 1973 and as early as 1969, at age twenty-four, he recorded with Milt Jackson on his “Memphis Jackson” album for Impulse records. It’s the horn of Ernie Watts that you hear on Marvin Gaye’s hit albums, “Let’s Get It On” and “I Want You.” This reedman’s list of contributions to great jazz music stretches from Dizzy Gillespie and Bobby Hutcherson to Gene Ammons and Quincy Jones. He’s featured on nine Charlie Haden albums and then adds his disco licks to the Donna Summer “Eponymous” project, recorded in 1982. His abilities landed Ernie on four Gerald Wilson albums. He recorded with Carmen McRae on “Can’t Hide Love” for Blue Note, with Blue Mitchell on the Mainstream label, with the great Brazilian composer, Moacir Santos, on his famous “Carnival of the Spirits” album, and too many more to mention here. When Ernie Watts isn’t touring or recording albums, he’s on call by the film industry. You can hear his saxophone on movies like, “Grease” and “The Color Purple.” He also played on Kurt Elling’s album, “Dedicated to You” that won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album back in 2011.

As a leader, Ernie Watts has twenty-one album releases covering the years from 1969 (Planet Love on Pacific Jazz Records) to this current release on the Flying Dolphin label. His group has been together for eighteen years and you can hear the tight cohesiveness these musicians share. This comes with time and consistently performing together. Their music feels communal. Each one of these gentlemen is a composer and has a serious love for the music and for each other. This extended family connection adds depth and strength, joy and just plain great jazz on Ernie’s current release titled, “Home Light.”

He has dedicated this “Home Light” album to his dear friend, Ndugu Chancler, who (to the music community’s great sorrow) made his transition in 2018. The title tune was written in Chancler’s memory. The album opens with an Ernie Watts composition titled, “I Forgot August,” that is based on the jazz standard, “I Remember April.” Right off the bat, this song flies like a Jackie Robinson homerun. It’s bebop, unstoppable, straight-ahead and wonderful. Rudi Engel’s walking, acoustic bass rips beneath the energy, locking the rhythm with Heinrich Koebberling’s drums and Christof Saenger’s grand piano. They create a blanket of sound for Ernie Watts to lay his saxophone melody atop. Kubberling has composed “Cafe Central 2am” and it’s a bluesy tune that let’s pianist, Christof Saenger, get down and dirty on the keys. The Ernie Watts composition, “Frequie Flyiers” explores the outer limits of creativity at a quick pace, with challenging intervals and interesting band breaks. Ernie Watts and Heinrich Koebberling take an exciting duo solo where Koebberling actually sings the melody on trap drums in unison with Watts’ saxophone. It’s very inspiring.

“Horizon” is a songwriting collaboration between pianist, Saenger and Ernie. It’s a lovely ballad and shows the softer side of these musicians.

There is something for everyone on this production. Here is Ernie Watts’ new release that celebrates the man and his music. It’s another accomplishment to add to the string of black pearls that Ernie Watts has woven into a musical necklace, inviting us to admire and enjoy.

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