Jazz CD Reviews

Marzette Watts – Marzette Watts & Company – ESP-Disk

A blast from the avant-garde past.

Published on May 14, 2012

Marzette Watts – Marzette Watts & Company – ESP-Disk

Marzette Watts – Marzette Watts & Company – ESP-Disk ESP-1044, 37:07 [4/24/12] (Distr. by Naxos) ***1/2:

(Marzette Watts – tenor & soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Byard Lancaster – alto saxophone, flute, bass clarinet; Clifford Thornton – trombone, cornet; Sonny Sharrock – guitar; Karl Berger – vibes; Juni Booth – bass (track 3); Henry Grimes –bass; J.C. Moses – drums)

The music and life of painter, multi-instrumentalist, soundtrack composer, experimental filmmaker, audio engineer and political activist Marzette Watts remains largely unknown to most people. During his short time as a leader he only released two albums, including one with avant-garde vocalist Patty Waters (Marzette Watts Ensemble, 1968, out of print) although there is more of Watts’ music which has never been issued. Watts’ brief sojourn in New York City’s 1960s loft music community did little to elevate Watts’ stature in the post-Coltrane jazz scene, even though he hosted loft parties and performed with several prominent jazz artists including Don Cherry, Archie Shepp and Byard Lancaster. Thanks to the ESP label, though, Watts’ debut, Marzette Watts & Company, has been remastered and reissued on compact disc and also high-quality digital download. This review refers to the CD version, which has new liner notes and photos.

Like most if not all ESP records, Marzette Watts & Company takes some time to appreciate and most likely will be enjoyed by fans of likeminded artists such as Albert Ayler, Julius Hemphill and Sonny Simmons. If not already an enthusiast of the avant-garde jazz idiom, this album probably won’t change your mind. That said, Watts’ three-track, 37-minute outing has a stellar line-up and intriguing moments which confirm that revolution was in the air at the time this 1966 recording was made. Alongside Watts (who plays tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet) is Byard Lancaster (who adds alto sax, flute and also bass clarinet), guitarist Sonny Sharrock, vibraphonist Karl Berger, bassist Henry Grimes (Juni Booth takes the bass on the final track), Clifford Thornton (trombone and cornet) and holding everything steady is drummer J.C. Moses.

Watts composed the three pieces, which range in length from 7 ½ minutes to just over 19 minutes. The ten-minute opener “Ia” is a wall-of-sound tapestry, where everyone solos, and pushes and prods themselves and each other. There is no main theme or chord progression. Improvisations are sandwiched between other improvisations and its every man for himself, or so it might appear at first listen. There is some order, though, chiefly because of J.C. Moses’ rhythmic backgrounds and spare but solid fills. Berger is as fluidly radical as he later became on his own records, but here he is often underheard, and thus underappreciated, due to the mixing. When he is given room, his single-line technique provides a flexible groove. The second cut, “Geno,” has a soulful undercurrent. Watts and Lancaster’s doubled saxes illuminate the tune’s understated essence, where the ensemble has more opportunity to maneuver. There is still an atmosphere of many instruments all talking at once, but the heated conversation has an ebb and flow missing from the first piece. Sharrock’s instinctive sense of applied aggression is heard to the fore, where his skittering characteristic note clusters bring a degree of sublime intensity. Every idea imaginable seems represented on the epic “Backdrop for Urban Revolution,” a 19-minute excursion which marries contemporary art (Watts was an accomplished if essentially unknown painter before emerging as a musician), political involvement (Watts was ejected from Alabama as a college student for attempting to register black voters) and anti-war protest (the Vietnam War was starting to become an issue by the time Marzette Watts & Company was produced). The saxophones scream and undulate, Sharrock’s guitar weaves edgy statements and the occasional bass clarinet furnishes a low-end lilt which moves from accessibility to unpredictability. Thornton also shows his restless imagination, which fit in so well when he backed Sun Ra and Sunny Murray. While Thornton also is somewhat lost amid the throng, his multitude of tones is expressive, stimulating and above all, alive. Sharrock is Sharrock, utilizing feedback and distortion in ways which Hendrix later expounded on independently. Among the chaos and clash, Moses again is the glue which holds all of the complexity together, forming a rhythmic retaining wall so nothing falls apart. Marzette Watts & Company offers a glimpse into the past when an undervalued subdivision of American jazz music was shaped and formed. For those who are interested, there is a 29-minute promotional video which includes an audio interview with album producer Bernard Stollman and some of Watts’ material. Watts’ music was designed for those with open ears and preserves the ability to provoke and perturb. Sadly, four of these musicians are now gone (Watts passed away in 1998, Sharrock in 1994, Thornton in 1989 and Moses in 1977), so this is music which will never be echoed again.

TrackList: Ia; Geno; Backdrop for Urban Revolution.

—Doug Simpson

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