Buster Williams / Ernie Watts

Originally published in Earshot Jazz October 2012

The big guns roll out for this festival concert. Bassist Buster Williams locks and loads the jazz love cannon with pianist Patrice Rushin, saxophonist Mark Gross and drummer Ndugu Chancler.

As a boy Williams heard bassist Oscar Pettiford solo on a record and the rest is history. His bass playing father “Cholly” was a fan of Slam Stewart and, like Stewart, strung his two basses at a higher pitch so that he didn’t have to reach as far to play high notes. Buster recalls that his father said, “If I restring my bass for you [to the normal tuning], you better be serious!”

Williams was serious. He began working with saxophonist Jimmy Heath in 1959. One month after graduating from high school, the 17 year old hit the road with saxophonists Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. Then came gigs with singers Dakota Staton, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. He joined pianist Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet and later the Timeless All Stars and Sphere.

Williams’ strong left hand slides up the bass neck during solo passages, creating his characteristic smooth slurs, glissandos and vibrato. His compositional maturity is on display in “Christina,” with pedal points, contrary motion between bass note and melody, developing melodic motif and emotional relief. No wonder this tune has become a standard among performers.

All this talent and humility too? “You see, I always enjoy playing other people’s music,” Williams said in a 1987 interview. “I don’t enjoy as much playing my music. I hope that someday I will enjoy playing my music as much as I enjoy playing other people’s music.”

Opening the show is California saxophonist Ernie Watts backed by Seattle’s Marc Seales trio. Watts and Seales have collaborated for 15 years, playing at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant twice a year and recording two CDs together. Watts was saddened to hear of Gaye Anderson’s recent passing and hopes that the New Orleans will continue its tradition of live music.

Like Williams, Watts’ devotion to jazz began at an early age. He started playing saxophone at age 13 in Delaware. The next year, his mother bought him a small record player and joined the Columbia Record Club. The first free record was a new release by Miles Davis – Kind of Blue. The intensity of sound from saxophonist John Coltrane became a central focus for the rest of Watts’ life.

A Downbeat scholarship took him to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He replaced saxophonist Gene Quill in the Buddy Rich big band and toured the world for two years. In 1969 he moved to Los Angeles and worked with Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson. Decades of work in recording studios followed and Watts toured with Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden. Watts became a charter member of Haden’s Quartet West which is still working and recording after more than 25 years.

Watts and his wife Patricia formed Flying Dolphin Records in 2004, and this performance will feature music from his latest release Oasis. Watts says he will be performing “tunes that I really love – Coltrane’s ‘Crescent,’ Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird,’ Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Shaw Nuff’ – plus originals.” Watts thinks the “music velocity and energy should be very enjoyable and invigorating.”

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