Branford Marsalis : Modern Drummer
Reflections From Jeff Watts’s Longtime Collaborator

by Ken Micallef

Since Jeff “Tain” Watts’s first recording with Wynton Marsalis in 1981, saxophonist Branford Marsalis has been at the drummer’s side, providing material, inspiration, and employment. Tain has appeared on practically all of Marsalis’s twenty albums, including the latest, Metamorphosen. Here’s Branford’s take on his longtime crony.

Jeff is a sound fanatic. When we play certain tunes he is essentially orchestrating. It was never just about [playing time] with him, telegraphing fills on the eight-bar phrase, and taking a solo. Jeff is always thinking of ideas, and it’s all about sound. As he’s listened to more and more different types of music than what he grew up listening to, he’s added those sounds to his repertoire. He just gets better and better.

The main thing that made that work is that we weren’t so eager to establish what we were musically. We allowed ourselves to be young and quite stupid and Jeff "Tain" Watts : Modern Drummervery foolish. Didn’t feel like we had to establish what we were, because when you do, you’re stuck in it. Jeff has never limited himself to one thing. That’s what he is. And he finds a way to make it all work within the context.

He’s organic, not artificial. He has that personal touch in his playing. There’s a certain level of depth that you get by checking out traditional music. Those guys grew up playing jazz as dance music. And if you don’t understand that jazz is dance music, then it’s just information and it’s down to your ability to recite a bunch of information and play it. You have to find a way to communicate the music on a level that is visceral. Now we can do that. If a song is at a slower tempo, Jeff is comfortable just swinging it.

Tain can play anything he feels like playing, with authenticity. It’s rare to find a musician who is comfortable with funk bands, salsa bands, big bands. He is a complete musician.