Igor Stravinsky sparked a riot when he debuted “The Rite of Spring” in Paris in 1913. When British saxophonist Trevor Watts and pianist Veryan Weston presented their equally challenging improvisational jazz at Barking Legs last year, the audience response was “phenomenal.” That’s not always the reaction the pair’s music engenders in first-time listeners. As a result, according to Barking Legs owner, Bruce Kaplan, “The Englishmen are eager to play for us again.” They’ll be back at Barking Legs on Dodds Avenue at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 12.
What these two world-class musicians do is “genuinely improvised,” as Watts put it in an interview in Jazz Planet. “Neither of us know what the other is going to play, nor does Veryan anticipate what I will do next or vice versa.” Having made music together in various configurations for close to 50 years, the two have developed an instinctual chemistry “and the concentration and quick reaction to what is being played in the moment.”
This is intense, challenging music. When asked what advice he’d offer a young musician setting out to master the art of improvisation as they practice it, Watts suggested that the artist “be ready for rejection ... It could be a difficult path.” The same might be said of newcomers to the duo’s freewheeling musical dialogue. Not immediately inviting, their work refuses to reveal itself in easily digested verses with catchy riffs and hummable choruses. Yet it yields unmistakable rewards. As a critic wrote in All That Jazz about Watts and Weston’s 2011 album, Five More Dialogues, “It feels as if dawn has been hung upon the waking sky by the dream-like pirouetting of piano and saxophone.”
Watts’ compositions are also often surprisingly approachable and melodic. In “Uhura,” an extended, quietly winding piece that can be heard on Watts’ MySpace page, his soprano sax traces long, spidery lines over the steady thrum of the percussive and yet subtly melodic drone of the urukungolo, an oversized, dulcimer-like instrument played (and invented) by Mexican-born musician, Gibran Cervantes. “Uhuru” has the feel of an Indian raga: gently insinuating, very relaxing and almost hypnotic. “Musical” and “melodic” may seem the antithesis of the music he makes with Weston, but for Watts it’s all of a piece.
“I’d like to make it clear that I love ALL music that stimulates me whatever style is carrying the music is immaterial,” he said in the Jazz Planet interview. “If it’s something that comes from the heart, then I can relate to it. That’s as much to do with classical music as ethnic music as jazz.”
Watts, born in 1939 in Yorkshire in northern England, met Weston, a classically trained pianist from Cornwall in southwest England, in the mid-1960s, a time in which creativity and originality seemed an artist’s birthright. Watts, a self-taught musician and less-than-successful student, only escaped a soul-shriveling factory job by joining the Royal Air Force. It was there that he met drummer John Stevens. After leaving the military, the two formed the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in London in 1965. Weston was also a part of the ensemble for a time.
SME’s music was based on rhythm more than melody. Imagine a beautiful room without furnishings, just the bare architectural bones. Watts calls it “pointillistic.” Drawing on that same concept almost 50 years later, Watts and Weston focus on moments rather than long, integrated pieces. In a state of ecstatic concentration, each responds to the other in the moment. The result is sometimes manic, sometimes serene. In a wild flight of Coltrane-like fancy, Watts stabs the saxophone keys with a furious flurry of notes; in the next moment Weston delivers with a deep, thunderous run on the piano, while Watts blasts an airy cluster into hypersonic space. And that’s just the first few minutes of their performance at Barking Legs last summer (see the video on YouTube).
The two musicians share Coltrane’s fascination with Indian modes and the often furiously propulsive interplay between the sitar and the tabla. When they’re playing a raga, the Indian musicians respond to each other’s cues, weaving a dense skein of rhythm and melody as they reach for ecstatic release—very much like Weston and Watts in full flight.
For these virtuoso musicians—and their adventurous audiences—the journey itself is the objective. Deciding what they’ll play ahead of their performance, writing it down on paper, and formalizing the composition would mean reaching the destination before they left. That would take all the fun out of it for everyone.
Trevor Watts & Veryan Weston
7:30 p.m. • $12/$15 Thursday, July 12
Barking Legs Theater
1307 Dodds Ave. (423) 624-5347