“The Stones were on tour, and the saxophonist they had with them wasn’t working out.” Ernie Watts, on the phone from his Los Angeles home, is having a bad case of jet-lag after performing with his quartet in Singapore. He recalls the 1981 tour in support of Tattoo You. The Stones needed a replacement for Bobby Keys, who had suddenly fallen ill. Coming in late in the game like that, Watts had missed all of the band’s rehearsals. So Mick and Keith handed him a stack of their CDs and told him which songs to learn. “My audition was at a live concert in San Diego for about 80,000.” They kept him on for the remainder of the tour.
Watts has been called a sax chameleon because he can play almost any style. The two-time Grammy Award winner has played on a Frank Zappa record, held down a regular spot in the NBC Tonight Show band, and sat in on dozens of R&B-flavored pop and jazz-rock records. All of that varied musical terrain has made Watts into one of the most powerful contemporary tenor performers. But, lately, Watts is turning back to his roots.
“I’m doing a lot of purely jazz-related things because that’s always been where my heart was. I grew up listening to John Coltrane and Cannonball [Adderley] and Bill Evans. That’s who I grew up aspiring to, so I kind of got back to that.”
But some critics say that traditional jazz is out of gas, that all of the good ideas were played out during the golden years of jazz, the 1950s and the 1960s. “Well, that’s about totally wrong,” he laughs. “There’s always something new, there’s always someone playing great, and the music is continuing to grow and evolve because we are. That’s the nature of the universe. It’s only over when we think it’s over.”
ERNIE WATTS: Jazz88 Music and Arts Festival, Ocean Beach, Saturday, September 11. $30. obmusicfest.org