LA bassist Jerry Watts has been an integral part of the recording scene for quite some time. He sports an amazing resume with tremendous diversity as far as genres are concerned—Andy Summers, Sergio Mendes, Dave Stewart, Mylene Farmer, and on and on the list goes. After speaking with him, it’s easy to see why he’s so in demand, as his commitment to excellence to the artists he’s working with is unquestioned.
Beyond a rigorous performing schedule, he heads up the bass faculty at the LA Music Academy, has worked on numerous instructional videos, and is a clinician as well. I’ve seen him personally at the last two Namm shows, playing first with a trio backing a vocalist, and then switching hats and heading up his own fusion trio, and I can tell you that his command of the instrument as well as his instinctive ability to musically interact with whoever he’s playing with rests at a very high level. These are the key elements that puts you, and keeps you “in demand”, and there seems to be no slowing him down.
Jake: You’ve had a diverse career as far as artists you’ve worked with. What would you consider to be key factors in your ability to leap genres as well as you do?
Jerry: I am interested in, and always have been interested in any kind of good music. It can be very simple, or extremely complex, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m motivated, and very curious as far as investigating different styles. I’m interested in what it is about the music that causes a reaction in me. If the response feels real, and authentic, and soulful, I’m compelled to find out about it.
Part two of this would be that when I was growing up, I moved a lot. I would be in one part of the country and all the kids were into a certain type of music, then I would move somewhere else and become involved in some other type of music. As I grew up playing in bands, I kept moving to different areas and playing totally different things. It kind of became the norm to change, so I learned pretty early on that a lot of the time I wouldn’t be playing music that I knew and was close to, I’d be playing the music that people were regionally into. That kind of set a template for the rest of my life.
Jake: So part of your practice time per se became working on a variety of styles out of necessity, which probably set you up for having the skills to leap from genre to genre as I spoke of.
Jerry: It’s not like I knew it was going on at the time, I was a kid, and we were moving. In those early years I was basically self-taught, and learned by ear as well as learning from other musicians I was playing with. I also listened to the radio a lot, and ended up listening to a lot of Motown. I had no idea who James Jamerson was, but I heard a lot of him. So there were many things going “In” to me at that point in time. I also jumped into high school band and played the tuba, badly I might add, so that I could join the jazz band. The jazz band exposed me to all kinds of new music. All of these experiences worked together to create this mindset I’ve been referring to. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I started studying privately.
Jake: I know you have a ‘less notes, more groove’ kind of philosophy. But after hearing you at Namm 2008, it was easy to see the more notes side of you is certainly available. What in your opinion is the trick, or I should say the focus on keeping a good balance between the two?
Jerry: I would just say that first of all, that’s a highly subjective thing. But for me, it’s as simple as, I love music, and bass playing, and with that said, I’m always trying to create the best music I can. So it seems to me that whatever it is that your hearing in your head, whatever it is that you want to express with your heart and your instrument, should and will be dictated by the music. It could be a technique that you need to express those ideas you have, but once again, the music will tell you where to go. So obviously, my attitude about that is that the music, as opposed to technique or facility, will make these decisions for us, and once in a great while, it might be a mixture of the two. If the music calls for me to play a lot of notes, great, but I’d want the tone to be absolutely great as it can be, as each note has its own gravity and meaning.
Conversation With LA Bassist Jerry Watts, 2/01/2008
After a while, I started noticing that people, after hearing Jaco Pastorius, started to just produce solo bass records, which is admirable, and very time consuming, and a huge undertaking for anybody. But it seems to me that you should go out and experience a lot of music first so you have a frame of reference for kind of the big picture of music. I kind of took my cues from guys like Joe Zawinal and Wayne Shorter when they started Weather Report. This was a very influential band for me. They were both already in their 40’s, and had a wealth of musical experience, and that enabled them to create this completely unique entity that impacted, well, all of us in that generation. So that’s kind of my way of looking at it—they were journeymen, and they really understood what it is to make music. And “then”, they stepped out, and that was important in my way of looking at things.
Jake: Being Bass Dept. Chair at LA Music Academy, I wonder if you could tell me what you see in the younger players that are coming up that inspires you, and conversely, what might be something that you see them missing in the overall picture?
Jerry: What inspires me is their desire to learn. As a teacher, I’ve come to really enjoy watching the light go on for someone; I find that to be very inspiring. I watch them sometimes not being able to see the forest through the trees, and suddenly, a few months into it, the light comes on, and I see all these things come together for them, and that’s amazing, and again, inspiring. I run this master class, and we have all kinds of amazing players come through from studio guys to stone cold groovers that don’t read a note, as well as bass shredders and amazing soloists, and it inspires me when students respond to that, and get a different perspective from being exposed to that.
I guess the other side of this is that the world is full of quite a few bass owners. A lot of these players don’t have much experience playing with other people. Playing the bass is hard to begin with, but learning to play music with other people consistently, and having success with that is way harder, and that’s the point that a lot of players seem to miss. There are some amazing resources out there today, the internet, you tube, being able to slow a track down and lift it, on and on it goes. But the down side of that is there are a great number of people who stay home and work on all of this and have an individual experience of playing music. Playing music is a “collective” experience. When I’m listening to recordings of duo’s or trios, I can hear and feel them playing together. That tells me that what I need to be about as a musician is listening and developing that ability to play with other people, and experiencing that interaction. This is the collective experience I’m referring to, and I feel a lot of younger musicians are missing that.
Jake: Giving you the title of being a great groove player comes easily for me. Understanding how diverse the answer to this question can be, I’m still going to pass it by you. What in your opinion are some of the key elements in creating a great groove?
Jerry: That’s a tough question. Even defining verbally what groove is can difficult – it’s a bit like trying to describe the smell of coffee! That said, can’t think about that without thinking about sound, and tone. Said another way, it has to feel right sonically, if that makes sense, particularly speaking in terms of genre to genre. I have to have the right instrument, amp—sound, to help get a good feel in that zone, whatever that might be. Also, it’s critical to know about the music. You’ve got to know it inside and out. Groove has a lot of components to it. These days, especially, metrically perfect time seems to be an important component. To me, a groove is something that is produced out of you. I also learned from a friend of mine the simple statement—how are you going to play a groove if you’re not feeling groovy. In other words, people that play with a good feel probably feel good—there’s a correlation there. So from my perspective, it’s coming out of who you are. So you take all your experiences of playing and investigating, and listening, just experiencing music, and at the end of the day all these factors add up to who you are musically. And I find in my experience that people “play” who they are. What I’m hearing them play, beyond chops and technique is actually “who” they are, and that seems to be true among good musicians—at least that’s my observation.
Jake: I noticed you’ve done a good amount of film and jingle work. Could you give me some insight on what you feel you bring to the table in this side of the industry, beyond your sight reading abilities, that keeps them calling you back? Said another way, is it all about contacts, or is there more to this game that we should know?
Jerry: I want to say first that the bulk of my recording has mostly been CD’s. I have done some soundtracks and some jingles, and some animated series—cartoon stuff. The guy that’s probably the kingpin here for doing that is Neil Stubenhaus. First off, certainly, sight reading is important, as well as being able to offer a variety of sounds—that’s important too. But things are changing radically with the development of home recording and the digital revolution, to the point that they don’t need bass players as much as they used to. Not anything you didn’t already know. Composers have a digital library with all kind of bass sounds, and they can very easily get away with not needing to hire a real bass player. That being said, what you do need to focus on when you get a call is being on time, and ready, and be willing to take directions. Let’s say someone asks you to play with a pick, and maybe you don’t play with a pick, but – you do that day, if you want to continue to have that job. The way you handle directions, pressure, and personalities, and the way you respond is the thing that keeps you viable in that world.
One of the things I did was play on an animated show called Batman Beyond. A lot of the time it was just me and the producer. My reading had to be there, I had to deal with different time signatures, and I had to be very fast. There was no guitar player on that session so I got to use multiple effects on my bass to make up for that, which was kind of fun. She’d ask me to play some weird sound on a particular passage—it was interesting, and that’s that world from my point of view. But once again, the greater part of my recording work has revolved around CD’s.
Jake: Final question here. With your schedule being as busy as it is between teaching, gigging, and touring, when practice time shows up for you, what do you try to focus on?
Jerry: There are a few things that I look at. Sometimes I’m preparing for the next gig or session. For example, this week I’m working with a Brazilian composer named Dori Caymmi at the Jazz Bakery here in LA. He’s very specific about his music, and a remarkable composer. I actually started recording with him in 1991, so I’m familiar with his music and his writing and arranging. But I have to begin to get back in that zone, as far as working with him, ahead of time—things I have to be aware of in his music and get to the front of my brain. So the first part of my answer is that I’m always preparing for the next thing.
Secondly, I practice using some different books that I work out of. The Wayne Krantz book (The Improvisers’ O.S.) and a few other things that are helping me develop my soloing. I’m trying to get my thinking outside of the box. I’m also working on some writing as well.
And the third part of it is just working on grooving and time keeping, which again kind of depends on what’s coming up. I have 4, 5, and 6 string basses, and they all feel different. I use them for different musical situations. So I’m basically working out on one of those basses with a particular gig in mind. Each gig sports a different feel, or time, and this is what I always want to be prepared for.
Jake: Each player I’ve interviewed looks at their individual practice time in a very unique way, and I’m always looking to get yet another perspective on what each player feels compelled to attend to in that time. Thanks for your feedback.
Jerry: I just wanted to mention one more thing, and that’s drummers. I probably love the drums more than anything else, and I’ve been blessed to work with some amazing drummers, and working with them always helps me in one way or another when I’m trying to work something out. Without being with them, and feeling them, I wouldn’t be able to come up with what I’m searching for. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t be the musician I am today without the interplay I experience with a drummer. When I first started recording, I was in a band with David Garibaldi from Tower of Power for 6 or 7 years. The band was called Wishful Thinking, and we did about 4 records. Vinnie Colaiuta also came into that band, and I got to play with him for a little while. Then I was recording with Indian violinist L. Subramaniam and Larry Coryell up in San Francisco, and he hired Tony Williams to play drums, and I got to spend three days of my life playing with Tony. I felt I was so not worthy of it, but I said, here I am, so lets jump in. A lot of these guys contributed to shaping me as a player, and I wanted to acknowledge that.