Art has always functioned in much the same way that a pendulum does. It moves from one direction to another, leaving behind one artistic movement for its complete opposite. It is this constant tug of war between opposing idioms that keeps artistic debate alive. Similar to the stylistic polarity of the Romantic and Realist movements was the artistic direction of 1970s jazz and 1980s jazz. The 1970’s was a decade dominated by the Free Jazz and Jazz Fusion movements. Miles was going electric, Weather Report was coming on the scene, and Herbie Hancock was recording Head Hunters. As the decade came to a close, a powerful statement was made by the music of the young Wynton Marsalis.

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Wynton and his brother Branford, a saxophonist, began a movement to revive hard swingin’ acoustic jazz (sometimes called “Neo-Bop”). This was a push from the music of the ’70s, a call for artistic reform through the reawakening of the past. The critics labeled Wynton and his peers “The Young Lions” for their virtuosic, hard-hitting style of play. Perhaps the most influential of the Marsalis “Lions” was the drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts. In a style of music defined by swing, Tain became the driving rhythmic force of the Neo-Bop movement.

With a driving, muscular swing feel, Tain’s rhythmic conception is one of intension and emotion. Like the rapper Action Bronson’s take on the ’90s sound of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Tain developed a modern version of Elvin Jones‘s style of play. His approach to the drums beautifully compliments the styles of Wynton and Branford. Together they create art that sounds both fresh and historically informed. It is no coincidence that Tain is the only musician to play on every one of the Marsalis brothers Grammy winning albums.

His contributions to each of these records are substantial. His presence is not only felt through his playing but also through his written compositions. As one might expect, Tain’s music is very much oriented around rhythm. His tune “Stretto from the Ghetto” off of Branfords’s Grammy winning record I Heard You Twice the First Time is an exemplification of Tain’s contribution to the Young Lions movement. The tune begins with what sounds like a straight-ahead swing feel between the bass and drums. After a few bars, Branford comes in with his tenor saxophone. With a quirky ¾ melody superimposed over the 4/4 swing pattern by the rhythm section, the tune feels beautifully disjointed and awkward. As the tune progresses, the players break into what Christian McBride would call “good ol’ fashioned grits and gravy swing.” While the composition is edgy and dissonant, it doesn’t lose its sense of blues. The music feels honest and approachable, ideals that are inherently connected with the Young Lions movement. While his stylistic approach challenges the rhythmic perception of his listeners, the music never loses that thing that is at the core of all black American music… swing.

Check out the Grammy-winning projects by the Marsalis brothers—all featuring Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums!

Black Codes From The Underground—(1986 “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance-Group)

J Mood—(1987 “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance-Group)

Marsalis Standard Time-Volume 1—(1988 “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance-Group)

I Heard You Twice The First Time—(1993 “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance-Individual or Group)

Contemporary Jazz—(2001 “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance By An Individual or Group)

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Words By Zeb Stern

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 10/26: Revive Music Presents: Jeff “Tain” Watts 4

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