In the mid-60s, at the birth of European free music, Trevor Watts was co-founder, with drummer John Stevens, of the pioneering Spontaneous Music Ensemble. His own group of the time, Amalgam, blended jazz and improv with folk, rock and global influences. From the 70s through to the 90s, he was a mainstay of Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, while in the 80s he also led a succession of Moiré Music ensembles which, viability permitting, varied in configuration from electric bass-driven trio to percussion-heavy orchestra, but all fusing improvisational strategies with Afro-centric rhythm.
These days, Watts is heard mostly in small group settings. 2012’s Dialogues in Two Places (Hi4Head), was an excellent two-CD set documenting Watts in concert with pianist Veryan Weston. As I noted in my review of the time, on that album the duo: “trade ideas, …moving from percussive aggression to coolly minimal abstraction with sometimes dazzling rapidity”. On this new solo recording Watts’ fluency is just as remarkable, and again, it’s not the mechanics of his music that’s notable so much as the fluidity of its coursing.
Veracity was self-recorded in a Hastings studio in June 2014, and Watts is clearly drawing from a deep well of inspiration. The album runs to just under fifty minutes and comprises thirteen concise pieces, all precisely conceived yet expressive, multi-faceted, simultaneously absorbing and reflective. I consistently find that the first two pieces alone, “Solus” and “Alto Prestissimo”, rewarding enough that sometimes I don’t need to listen further; they seem just about perfect in themselves, although there’s an urgency to the music that usually draws me further in.
On that opening brace of tracks, Watts distills the multifarious influences that filtered through his earlier activities into sinuous music of crystalline conceptual clarity. “Solus” begins quite sombrely, Watts’ plying in the alto’s deeper, proximate tenor range, shifting into the brighter altissimo register as he develops his initial thematic licks through thoughtful exposition into mellifluous flocking patterns.
What’s really remarkable is the concision and sculptural precision of the music, for all its depth and complexity. A title such as “Pleomorphism” suggests that Watts sees his music as cellular and amorphous (the piece itself, however, is bracingly vigorous). “Alto Prestissimo” repeats the flocking trick, with sedate licks spun into tightly patterned arabesques. The simple, repeating patterns of “Space Signal” and the dazzling arpeggiation of “Shadows” have a complementary structural rigour.
“Afrocentricity” begins slowly, as a circling pattern of recycled breathing in trance-inducing repetitions, and there’s a similar circularity to the relatively freewheeling, songlike “Monadism” and “Quito Nights”. Such pieces are comparable to the similarly ravishing music of one of Watts’ peers, John Surman. But where Surman uses multi-tracking and synthesizers to create an immersive ambience on his solo recordings, Watts music is fleshed out with nothing more than modest reverb. There’s a hard, compacted obsidian lustrousness to pieces like “Echoes of Tradition” which is invigorating, where Surman’s music tends to be wholly seductive.
“Dreaming and Drifting” is taken at a slower than average tempo. It’s not unfocused as the title implies, but Watts does end each line with a mournful downward inflection, giving the piece a sombre aspect. “Rolling” is also deeper than its naming suggests. The interpolation of these moments of steady deliberation into the rippled translucence of the main body of work gives the album depth.
Trevor Watts – alto saxophone.
Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston – Dialogues in Two Places
But Veracity direct from FMR.