Trevor Watts @80 – Musical Pioneer
Trevor Watts, long-time Hastings resident and globally renowned pioneer of improvised music, turns 80 this year. Andrew Myers caught up with him for a couple of pints at the Jenny Lind
Trevor Watts and Pete Knight in the 1980s
AM: We spoke last time about the open-minded spirit of the 1960s. But you did encounter outright hostility from time to time?
TW: When Julie Driscoll (Tippett) left the pop scene she didn’t sing for a couple of years. Locked herself away. John Stevens found her and asked her if she’d like to try some improvising, and she did her first experiments with us. This was in 1972.
Her manager was still around and interested and got us a gig at the Palermo POP Festival in Sicily.
It was held in a football stadium. Half the crowd perhaps were expecting Wheels on Fire, but we were playing improvised music together at that time.
Half the crowd started to throw dirt wrapped in newspaper. The other half cheering and chanting JULIE, JULIE!
It’s the only time I’ve been locked in a dressing room after the gig for our own safety.
Much more exciting than now. It’s all gone a bit bland again and overly respectful.
Moire Music Group circa 1988. Check out the Hastings musos!
AM: There’s a video of the same group up on YouTube (with Ron Hermann, John Stevens, Julie Driscoll). I love the way it starts off sparse and tentative, and then builds up. As if everyone’s feeling their way towards something.
TW: Also if you think about Indian classical music, they usually start slow and build. It’s quite a natural thing to do in music that is not there for entertainment as being the first thing, but trying for a more profound experience. Eventually something else takes over. A collective consciousness. With improv, we aim to get in touch very much with our intuitive side of things and be as much ‘in the moment’ as you can. Thinking consciously is a much slower process.
AM: Can it ever be completely free though?
TW: Well, in the early days we did actually develop very strict rules to a certain extent. One of the rules was, you don’t play linear. Dots and dashes. Pointillistic music.
AM: No tunes!
TW: Absolutely no tunes! It was useful at the time to play within those self-restricting boundaries. I always think freedom comes from a sense of discipline, so to speak, or how else would you recognise it?
AM: How do you know who starts it?
TW: You could equally say ‘how do you know who ends a piece?’ Basically, it’s a letting go of any preconceived ideas about what you are going to play, but to launch into it more with your ears in play than your head. You can trust in that.
I guess it’s guided by the one who is most bursting to play or say something at that point. Once a sound is there, then there’s something to respond to.
Trevor Watts and Nana Tsiboe
AM: So is it all about getting rid of ego?
TW: Well, that’s what we were supposedly about. Except that sometimes the person suggesting getting rid of ego, it turns out, usually had the biggest one!
AM: I saw you twice last year – once with Veryan Weston and the second time with Olie Brice. I wouldn’t call them tunes exactly (!) but it seemed to have more melodic continuity than the YouTube video I saw.
TW: Well, that’s where I am now. You delve into all these areas and they do become part of you. But it doesn’t mean to say you have to play them forever.
I’ve done a lot of different stuff. I had a string ensemble. I even wrote a choral piece – Thames Chamber Choir performed it.
AM: You’ve also been influenced by African music, and you’ve had a long-standing collaboration with Ghanaian percussionist Nana Tsiboe.
TW: I started two related groups in 1980 that were influenced by African music in various ways and included African musicians. One focused on improvising, one was more about the compositions. Eventually in 1990 these morphed into the Trevor Watts Moiré Music Drum Orchestra!
The first incarnation in 1980 was Ernest Mothle (bass), Liam Genockey (drums), Peter Knight (Violin), Nana Tsiboe and Mamadi Kamara (African Perc) and myself (saxes).
I didn’t ever call it an Afro thing. I never tried to play like an African saxophonist. It was the rhythmic thrust I was after. We became good friends just playing together. A few of these musicians have ended up living in Hastings!
AM: Including HIP’s very own Colin Gibson! But again, this music’s very different to your 60s sound.
TW: Some people were a bit snobbish about the improvisational thing with African rhythm, saying it wasn’t proper improvisation. But there’s lots of ways of improvising.
Those African guys were spontaneously moving rhythm around in so many ways.
Album cover (design Margaret Richards)
AM: You had phenomenal global success with this group.
TW: I toured globally with this group – South Africa, Botswana, USA, Mexico, Venezuela… We were the first group to play in Burma for about 15 years. Dancing was banned in the country so it happened behind closed doors. I also did an album on ECM in 1993, A Wider Embrace, with a version of this group.
It was re-released last year – not in Europe, but for the South African market. I thought this was strange. But I later found out it was played in all the South African dance halls in the 90s!
AM: So you were a free improv world-wide pop star!
TW: Ha, ha!
• Tune in for our final part next issue, where Trevor talks about keeping young and his plans for the future
• Read part one of this interview here
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