Jazz virtuoso Ernie Watts’s fascination with ragas and rhythms led to love of mixing cultures
Being in Buddy Rich’s band in the 1960s was good enough for saxophonist Ernie Watts: he was in his early 20s, playing with a demanding but undeniably brilliant drummer, and making a decent living as a full-time musician.
Little did he know that things were going to get much, much better.
After making the jump to being a bandleader in his own right with 1969’s Planet Love, Watts would go on to record a further 19 records under his own name, play a prominent role in the making of soul star Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, and enjoy long-lasting musical partnerships with both Tonight Show music director Doc Severinsen and avant-jazz bassist Charlie Haden.
Beyond that, graduating from Rich’s band also led him to discover the second kind of music that would transform his life—jazz, of course, being the first.
“Buddy was with [the California record label] Pacific Jazz, and when I left Buddy’s band I started recording for them,” Watts tells the Straight on the line from Las Vegas, where he’s performing with singer Diane Schuur. “And they had a producer named Dick Bock, who is credited with introducing Ravi Shankar’s music to the western world. So I started listening to Ravi way back then. I was listening to those scales and those sounds—you know, the ragas are the scales; the talas are the different rhythms—and I was learning about that probably when I was in my early 20s.”
His early interest became a lifelong fascination, best expressed in his ongoing collaboration with South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam, who’ll join the saxophonist in an Indian Summer Festival concert named Here Is Where We Meet. Actually, though, it’s more like Watts is joining Subramaniam: he defers to the violinist as the real master in an ensemble that includes several acknowledged virtuosos.
“We haven’t talked about this particular concert yet,” Watts says, “but, you know, his wife, Kavita Krishnamurthy, she is an incredible South Indian classical singer. I think she’ll be there, but I’m not sure. And they have a son, Ambi, who is a really great young violinist; Subramaniam has been teaching Ambi his whole life. He’s grown up in that music. So we play all compositions of Dr. Subramaniam, and we’ve been doing this for quite a while over the years. We call it global fusion: it’s a mixture of the South Indian sounds and percussion and scales with western instruments, also. He uses electric piano, he uses electric bass, and then he has all of the Indian hand drums, so it’s quite a mixture of sounds—and it’s a lot of fun.”
Jumping from shows with the Grammy Award–winning Schuur to Subramaniam’s band is not the leap it might seem, Watts says. “Mainly it’s just my being in tune, consciously, with the music,” he explains. “The craft and techniques and everything are quite similar, because the laws of music are the same laws.…Some of the Indian scales, some of the ragas, are not all totally tuned in the same way as western music, but the saxophone is very good for that. It’s a flexible instrument, tonalitywise.”
There’s a subtle message here, Watts adds. If diverse instruments can combine to create a harmonious whole, so, too, can different ethnic and religious groups.
“I’m sort of the representative of western culture, being the jazz musician and coming from jazz harmony, and then we sort of demonstrate how all of that works together with the South Indian elements,” he says. “All of the music comes together, and so it is possible for all of the people to come together too.”