Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An Interview with Soprano Saxophonist Heath Watts: Life as a Scientist and an Improviser

When he’s not working remotely from his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso, as a postdoctoral researcher, soprano saxophonist Heath Watts spends his time researching the sonic probabilities of his instrument. To say that Heath’s career trajectory is non-linear would be an understatement.  There are few free jazz soprano saxophonists, maybe none, who can say that they got their start as a blues singer back in Butte, Montana, only to be converted after hearing Lacy perform in concert in his hometown. This is just one of many interesting facts about Heath's musical path that makes him such a unique artist. So please check out this fascinating interview, where we discuss Heath's life as a scientist, as an improviser, and his new recording with bassist Blue Armstrong, titled Bright Yellow with Bass, released on the independent British label  Leo Records.

Sam Newsome: You describe your music as non-idiomatic improvisation. When and why did you decide to define your music as such?

Heath Watts: I adopted the term “non-idiomatic” from guitarist Derek Bailey, but I’m not sure that I (would still describe my music that way. Bailey argued that there are forms of improvisation such as jazz, Indian classical, and Flamenco music that are distinct idioms, but that free improvisation is not an idiom. Free improvisation has been around for more than fifty years, and although there are many free players with distinctive styles, I believe that the general sound of free improvisation is recognizable as an idiom.

SN: I read that while living in Butte, Montana, you were a blues guitarist and singer. How did this come about? And for how long did you do this?

HW: I discovered the blues in my early twenties through the Beatles and other 1960s rock. From there I discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King, Buddy Guy, et al., who then led me to Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, and other country blues guitarists. I love country blues music and still listen to it frequently. After a couple years of playing guitar, I decided to start a blues band. I found a group of players who were much more experienced and better players than I was. We had a Hammond organ, a horn section with two saxes, trumpet, and trombone, bass, drums, and myself on guitar. I called it “Blues By Five”, named after the Miles Davis song.  My later jazz group was “Blue 7” after Sonny Rollins’ song, which confused people because the group was usually a sextet or larger. We only performed for about two years, but I learned a lot about leading a band and working with a team of musicians. The blues are a big influence on me.

SN: Did singing and playing blues guitar shape your saxophone playing?

HW: I think that singing helped with the transition to the saxophone. I learned how to breathe and phrase somewhat from singing. I really enjoyed practicing scales on my guitar, and that transferred to the saxophone. I like to study the basics of sound and technique, and I still focus on those when I practice. I play overtones, long tones, intervals, multiphonics, altissimo exercises, and other basic things every day. My goal is to continue to gain greater control of my saxophone and then “let go” when I play. I seldom practice improvising, because I try to enter each playing situation without pre-conceived or prepared material. The guitar gave me a good foundation of scale and chord theory and dexterity that I could apply to the saxophone.

SN: You’ve said that after hearing Steve Lacy play in concert in Montana, you were inspired to switch from the tenor to the soprano saxophone. Can you tell us a little about that concert? And did you get a chance to meet and talk to Lacy?

HW: Few people went to the concert, which is a shame, but I’m so happy that I did. Lacy played solo in the show as well as played with a drummer and bassist from Montana. He didn’t say too much from the stage. Coltrane led me to the soprano, and Lacy opened the world of the soprano to me. I focused on tenor for about five years and used my soprano as a second voice. About sixteen years ago, I stopped playing tenor and have focused on soprano since then. I spoke to Lacy at the end of the show and told him how much I enjoyed it. I wish I had been more familiar with his work at that time; I would have had a lot of questions for him. Fortunately, he left us the book “Findings” and so many interesting interviews.

SN: I agree. Many jazz greats have left behind their body of work, but few have documented and left behind their methodology.

HW: Other than Steve Lacy’s book, I’ve found Dave Liebman’s various books very useful over the years.

SN: I’ve been described as someone with an affinity for playing solo. However, the duo seems to be your musical setting of choice. You’ve recorded two CDs on Leo Records. The first with drummer Dan Pell titled Breathe if You Can (2008) and more recently Bright Yellow With Bass (2017) recorded with bassist Blue Armstrong. What is it about playing duo that you find musically appealing, or even liberating, for that matter?

HW: Solo playing is something I enjoy as well. I have about six albums worth of solo material that I recorded over a two-year period that I plan to release at some point. Freely improvised solo work is fun because the sky is the limit.  Duet playing is appealing because it is an intensely intimate interaction; you have to listen all the time, and you have to contribute, whether through sound or silence I do like to play with larger groups, but duets seem to provide the greatest freedom to interaction ratio.

SN: Regarding your documented solo work, how did you come to accumulate six albums worth of material in such a short period of time? Do you just book studio time on a regular basis when you’re feeling inspired? For my past two solo efforts, that’s kind of how I worked.

HW: I have a couple of good microphones, a USB interface, and Logic Pro on my MacBook, so I’ve been able to do the solo recordings myself. Mixing isn’t an issue with one microphone and mastering the soprano takes some experimentation, but I’ve found some suitable plugins that help. I set up my gear in my kitchen and don’t worry about ambient sounds too much. The train roars by our house regularly, so listeners will be able to hear it on some of my solo albums when I release them. Dan Pell and I mixed and mastered “Breathe If You Can” together. We recorded that album in his basement with one overhead microphone on the drums and one on the soprano saxophone. Even with just two microphones involved, mixing and mastering becomes a more complicated process.

SN: How did you and Blue Armstrong become musical collaborators?  And what is it about his approach that makes him ideal for duo collaborations?

HW: Blue brought free improvisation to Montana when he moved there from Michigan. He started playing with a number of people in Montana who I met before I met Blue. When I was playing tenor primarily and leading my group Blue 7, I was a serious composer of jazz heads and it took a while to hear what was happening with free music, but once I began to understand it, it became my favorite means of playing. Blue listens intensely and responds instantly to the situation; those are necessary traits for playing free improvisation. I also like to play with musicians who are nice people, and he’s a great person.

SN: Is there an improvised or creative music scene in Butte, Montana? Just from the fact that Lacy appeared there tells me that there is a community there with sophisticated taste.

HW: In and around Butte there are a number of good improvisers. I hope to be releasing a quartet recording soon on Leo with trombonist MJ Williams, violinist Nancy Owens, and Blue Armstrong on bass. It will be a fully improvised album like my other two Leo releases, but the quartet provided an interesting set of new challenges and adventures. I saw Lacy in Helena, which is about sixty miles from Butte. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a promoter in Helena brought in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ned Rothenberg, and other great players. Unfortunately, that scene disappeared before I became involved; however, MJ is trying to revitalize it. She is promoting shows in Helena again, which is very exciting.

SN: On your CD Bright Yellow With Bass, you and Blue were effective at making each track sound different, which is not easy to do, when all the music is improvised. Did you discuss concepts or musical direction ahead of time, or did you just allow the musical chips fall where they may?

HW: It’s all improvised and I believe that it is either in the order we recorded it or nearly in the order. We didn’t discuss the music before playing, and we hadn’t seen each other or heard each other in about six months before we recorded the album. Because we live far from each other, we don’t get to play often. During the time between our meetings, Blue explores his bass and I my soprano. Then we come together and fit our new ideas together. It’s always surprising to hear the great new ideas that he has each time we meet.

SN: Yes, it’s great when you can come together with a like-minded person and discover new ideas together.

Now, let’s talk about Heath Watts, the scientist.  I know that you have a Ph.D. in geochemistry. Unfortunately, I’m not smart enough to have a conversation with you about your scientific work, but I am wondering if you see a connection between conducting scientific experiments and playing music? Many scientists are pretty passionate about music. We all know Albert Einstein was pretty serious about playing the violin. Pianist Jean-Michel Pilc worked as an aerospace engineer becoming a distinctive voice in jazz. I just purchased a book called The Jazz of Physics by theoretical physicist Stephan Alexander, who is a professor of physics at Brown University and a tenor saxophonist. And I think it’s pretty common knowledge that Vijay Iyer studied physics and mathematics at Yale. So you can start to see the pattern.

What do you see the connection as being?

HW: You’re certainly smart enough, but science isn’t your area of focus. I think that you’d make a good scientist because as a musician, you find problems that you’d like to solve and you would systematically solve them. If something doesn’t work, you change your plan and work until you solve the problem at hand. Along the way, you discover things that you hadn’t expected. Science is similar, but the questions and problems differ and the path to solving them involves tools that differ from those of music. For example, when you and I played the first time, I couldn’t do slap tonguing—that was the problem I wanted to solve. I listened to the way you did it that day, listened to your albums and those of others who slap tongue, bought some books that described the technique, and watched YouTube videos. A few hundred hours later, I could do it; I don’t sound like you, but I think that I’ve developed my own thing. Humans like to solve problems, whether the problems involve mathematical proofs, understanding chemistry, perfecting a musical technique,  or writing a good poem. Some people solve problems better than others do, and we each work on problems that interest us.

SN: What musical problems are you trying to currently solve?

HW: I’m very interested in developing my altissimo range. There are soprano saxophonists who have developed the altissimo range, but I want to find a way to use it that is unique to me. I can play two octaves above high F and sometimes a little more, but I want to keep working on it to make it something special and interesting. I’m also interested in the notes below low B-flat; I can bend down to low F#, but again, I need to keep searching for ways to make those notes fit more seamlessly into my improvisations. Mastering and incorporating a growing library of multiphonics into my improvisations is also an ongoing project that I enjoy.

SN: Have you ever been working on something scientific and have gotten inspired musically?

HW: What I do scientifically is very specific and it’s usually difficult to see a connection with music, but I do have some ideas. For example, bonds between atoms in molecules vibrate at particular frequencies and we can use those frequencies to identify molecules. I’ve converted the vibrational frequencies of simple molecules such as water and carbon dioxide to musically playable frequencies and the results are interesting. It might be fun to explore this further using larger molecules. What sounds could be made from the vibrational frequencies of a strand of DNA? I’m not sure if anyone has done something similar.

SN: That sounds fascinating. You should post some of those vibrational frequencies you’ve converted. I’d love to hear what they sound like.

HW: Thanks, I think that it could be. I’m still in my laboratory with regard to that project and I hope that I’ll have an interesting breakthrough soon.

SN: Being someone who does not depend on performing as your sole means of income, do you find that to be a hindrance, or do you find it liberating? And the reason I’m asking is that I went into academia is that I wanted the freedom to be singular in my creative efforts. Free-lancing certainly has its advantages, but it does tend to pull you in many directions.

HW: I find it more liberating in that I don’t have to take gigs that I don’t find interesting; however, there are not a lot of gigs available. I spent a couple of years playing Mustang Sally in smoky bars with my blues group. It was fun for a while, but then it becomes work. Not relying on music for my income means that it does not become work and that I can completely control my musical direction.

SN: Back to your new CD, Bright Yellow With Bass, can we expect any live performances from you and Blue?

HW: I hope so. If we can coordinate our schedules, I’d love to do some performances with Blue; we don’t get to perform often because of our locations. I’m always open to new venues.

SN: Is there a track or tracks on Bright Yellow with Bass that’s your favorite? I found that it’s always nice when you tap into a new zone while recording. It becomes this unexpected moment or moments that you get to enjoy for eternity.

HW: I like the whole album. There are always things that I think could be improved in my playing, but it is a good representation of what I was capable of on that day. At about 5’20” to about 6’15” on track 9, non-standard issue, I played some very low sounds that sound to me a bit like a didgeridoo and a bit like a low-pitched shakuhachi. I had never played like that previously, and I haven’t been able to replicate those sounds since then, which is frustrating. However, much of what I played on the album was in the moment; sounds that will only happen once in that way and for that particular recording. I have my clichés, but I’d like to have a larger sonic palette so that I can avoid overplaying them.

SN: Here are a few general questions: What is your set-up?

HW: I played a Borgani Jubilee Pearl Silver straight soprano on Bright Yellow With Bass using a Soprano Planet Open Sky mouthpiece (0.085) and a Hahn synthetic #2 reed. I played a Keiwerth SX90 black gold on Breathe If You Can using a Pillinger mouthpiece (0.105) and a Fibercell MS reed. I don’t remember which ligature I used on those albums. For the past four years, I’ve primarily used my Borgani with a Theo Wanne Gaia1 (0.085), a Bambú woven ligature, and a Hemke #2 reed. The Gaia1 gave me an extra octave of altissimo; it’s not a perfect mouthpiece, but it does what I require for now.

SN: Are there any soprano saxophonists out there that we may not have heard of whom you’d like to bring to our attention?

HW: There are so many great soprano saxophonists that it’s difficult to choose from among them. I would suggest that people listen to Gianni Mimmo, Harri Sjöström, Paul Bennett, Joe Giardullo, Bhob Rainey, Michel Doneda, and Kayla Milmine among others.

SN: I agree. When I first started playing the soprano exclusively, I felt there were only a handful of people truly devoted to playing the instrument. And I’m happy to say that today this is no longer the case.

HW: Yes. There are many other soprano saxophonists who deserve more attention including Jack Wright, John Butcher, Ned Rothenberg, Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, and Dave Liebman to name a few. I once performed an improvisation with eleven saxophonists in a large resonant hall in Philadelphia under the leadership of Jack Wright (Saxophone Soup) where I was the only soprano saxophonist in the group. I’d like to play a similar improvisation with a large group of soprano saxophonists.

SN: Lastly, any words of advice for young soprano saxophonist looking to carve out a career for themselves as improvising musicians?

HW: Play with others when you can and not just in performance but in private sessions. Practice your soprano saxophone a lot and focus on sound quality as much as you focus on technique. Long tones, interval studies for ear training, overtones (e.g., Raschèr, Sinta, and Allard), and so-called extended techniques (multiphonics, slap tongue, altissimo, etc.). The larger your sound reservoir, the greater your potential to produce interesting improvisations will be. Ten thousand hours is just the beginning, it’s similar the satori in Buddhism. If you put in a certain amount of time, you might be awakened to your true musical nature; you’ll be able to control and experience certain aspects of your playing that you could not without putting in the time. However, I don’t think that it is possible to attain mastery, some people come closer than others, but there is always more to learn.

SN: Thank, Heath. It’s been a pleasure!

Listen here to "Non-Standard Issue"

Purchase Heath's new CD here on Leo Records:


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