Celebrating musical diversity
by Piotr Michalowski
In the wake of the liberating free jazz movements of the 1950s and 1960s, musicians all over the world reexamined their attitude toward jazz tradition. Perhaps the most radical new trends took place in England, where a small group of artists turned their back on American jazz and developed a completely new language of improvisation based on sound texture and rhythmic complexity, eschewing classical notions of melody and rhythmic regularity, and exploring unorthodox instrumental techniques. The major participants in these musical experiments were John Stevens, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Trevor Watts.
Watts is a self-taught saxophonist who started out playing modern jazz and blues but quickly gravitated toward the new British sounds, becoming an important member of the Spontaneous Musical Ensemble led by drummer Stevens. But even as he worked in this radical environment, he also developed his own no less radical take on other musical traditions. Watts formed a group named Amalgam that combined diverse influences, including American free jazz, blues, and rock, incorporating dance rhythms and the electric bass guitar. Ever omnivorous in his musical tastes, he listened to contemporary classical as well as to folk and pop. Obviously feeling constrained by the narrow limits of free improvisation, he eventually moved away from his old colleagues.
Like many other London improvisers, Watts was touched by the influence of expatriate South African musicians who had moved there, and he even played in drummer Louis Moholo's group. In the 1980s he also began to think more seriously about composition and arranging, and he combined all of this in a series of orchestras that he called Moiré Music. These groups incorporated African rhythms and African musicians, as well as a broad range of instruments, including the violin and the electric bass, in various combinations, with sometimes up to ten participants. Ever restless, Watts visited Venezuela in 1990 to study local black music and eventually created a thirty-five-member group of musicians, actors, and singers that performed in
Europe and recorded an important CD.
Most recently, he has assembled a new eight-piece Celebration Band that combines his interests in European and African folk forms with elements of jazz and dance music. Although he still features solo improvisations, this group is a vehicle for his tightly arranged compositions that are designed to lift the heart and move the feet. The Celebration Band is above all a great celebration of the diversity of human music; it flies in the face of bland "world music" and demonstrates that players of different backgrounds can make coherent music together without losing their individuality and can revel in sound and rhythm. Most important, it is great fun!
Trevor Watts and his Celebration Band perform in two different shows during the 2003 Edgefest: at the Firefly Club on Thursday, October 2, and at Workbench Furniture on Saturday, October 4.
[Originally published in October, 2003.]