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Ernie Watts: Reunited with Corky Siegel and his Chamber Blues

Corky Siegel and his Chamber Blues will team up with the legendary saxophonist Ernie Watts for performances on May 27th & 28th at the Thrasher Opera House (Green Lake WI), May 29th Acorn Theater (Three Oaks, MI) and on May 31st at City Winery (Chicago). We talked with Ernie about his upcoming performances with Corky Siegel, some of his musical experiences and some of his other upcoming recordings and performances.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Over your career you have recorded and performed with a wide range of artists in many different genres. You must have had many musical influences throughout the years, can you tell us about one major influence that you might have had that helped you conceptualize the way you play saxophone?

Ernie Watts: John Coltrane was my first major influence, and has remained a prominent influence in my playing concept and my study of harmony, to this day.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: For over 20 years you were in the Tonight Show Band lead by Doc Severinsen. How did performing in a steady situation like help to shape your playing and your career?

Ernie Watts: The Tonight Show band was a great band. There were many classic jazz masters in that band; Snooky Young, Conte Candoli, Ed Shaughnessey, Pete Christlieb, Bill Perkins, and Tommy Newsome (who was also a great composer.) For me the Tonight Show was like going to school every day. It was an incredible opportunity to listen to and play with great musicians, and I grew a lot in this band.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have over 19 recordings under your own name and you continue to tour and perform regularly throughout the world. How important is it for artists to continue to record and create new music and perform in front of new audiences?

Ernie Watts: For me as a jazz player, continuing to create new music is a core part of my life, as is performing it with my bands in front of audiences. All audiences are new audiences, even when you are playing in a venue you have played in before. And recording is a way to preserve where I have been at that moment in time musically, to learn from it by listening, and to continue forward. Also it is a way for people who hear the CD to be another form of audience for the music.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Coming up in the next few weeks you will be doing a Midwest tour with Corky Siegel with a stop in Chicago at city Winery on May 31st. Conceptually how different is it performing with a Chamber ensemble like Corky Siegel’s compared to a jazz quartet?

Ernie Watts: Surprisingly, conceptually it’s not as different as you might think, between performing with a chamber ensemble or a jazz quartet. Both groups are governed by the same laws and theories of music, especially since Corky’s ensemble is so rooted in the blues. For instance, the cellist in the string quartet serves the bass function in Corky’s group. My playing is also rooted in the blues, so playing with Corky’s ensemble is sort of a natural extension of playing with my own ensemble.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you first meet and perform with Corky Siegel?

Ernie Watts: I met him in India, while playing in a group formed by Dr. L. Subramaniam, the iconic South Indian Classical violinist. Subramaniam created what he calls Global Fusion by adding musicians from other musical backgrounds and cultures to his core group of traditional Indian musicians. Corky and I were two of these additions. We toured together for three weeks, during which time we became close, both musically and personally, and formed a lasting friendship.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have performed in large arena’s and small jazz clubs. The City Winery offers a more intimate experience for the listener. When playing jazz do you prefer a more intimate space and does it provide for more interaction between the musicians on stage and the audience?

Ernie Watts: Mainly I just love to play! Whether it’s a large or small venue, I always strive to play my very best. I do think playing in a more intimate space does provide for more interaction between the musicians and the audience, but also I believe that a sincere expression of our art connects with everyone, whether in a small or large space.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Other than the upcoming Midwest tour, do you have any other dates or recordings coming up that our readers should know about?

Ernie Watts: After playing with Corky, my next concert will be in New York City with Dr. Subramaniam on July 3. In August my US Ernie Watts Quartet will play at the Los Angeles Museum of Art on the 19th, and on the 20th I play with Diane Schuur at a summer festival in Idyllwild, California. At the end of September I will be playing in Singapore with the pianist Jeremy Monteiro, and in October we will be going back to Europe for more concerts into mid-November with my European Ernie Watts Quartet—we have been together for 15 years now.

We have a new CD out, just released in April, called “Wheel Of Time”. It includes lots of original music; four tunes from me, and one each from the other band members. Also featured is a jazz classic by the great saxophonist Joe Henderson, ‘Inner Urge’, and a light-hearted calypso, ‘Goose Dance’, by Toronto pianist Adrean Farrugia.

Following that European tour, in November I play four concerts with Doc Severinsen, who is still out there playing great trumpet at 88 years. It’s a very interesting and full life.

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