The evening of the Fête de la Musique, pianist Eric Watson was surveying the crowds from the balcony of his Marais apartment when he had an epiphany. “I suddenly flashbacked to the ’60s and ’70s. I felt something was coming; things were finally changing … ” He’s talking about music and the way it’s offered to the public. And he’s talking about the conservatism of the ’90s. “In the ’70s you could deal with Cecil Taylor because of the dope.” He shrugs. “People don’t have that anymore … ” Ergo, they don’t deal with Cecil anymore. Instead they have to deal with being told “by people like Wynton what jazz is. What I want to see more of is truly crazy musicians.” And he’s ready to be one of them? “Absolutely.”
While Watson doesn’t mind being called truly crazy, he’s not so sure about the title “jazz musician.” He’d rather be a “pianist-composer.” But he readily admits that swing is vital to him and is quick to quote Steve Lacy’s definition: “Swing is friendship and love between musicians who adore playing with each other.” He believes that swing is the main thing that distinguishes his music from the “contemporary classical” category he’s sometimes put in by fellow Americans who see him performing in theaters and radio studios rather than clubs. The sensibilities of the European circuit are more in tune with his own than those of the American circuit, which is one reason he has made Paris his home for 19 years.
Watson’s playing is perhaps best characterized by the elegance of contradiction. Dark left-hand chords, richly textured one moment, knotted and stressed the next, coexist with bright moments of subtle, deft brilliance. He admits it. “I like to think of my music as extremist. There’s enormous content, and one of the biggest sounds out there. One of the smallest too. My nervous system requires a whole palette of colors.” One of the ways he attained those colors was by exploring the percussive possibilities of the piano. “I couldn’t play micro-tones and bend notes like a horn player so I gravitated towards the percussive possibilities of the piano while trying not to impinge upon its lyrical part. I spent years doing drum exercises on the piano, to the chagrin of my neighbors. It wasn’t just the rhythm element but the physicality of drummers I was exploring. I wanted to stress the connection between drumming, percussive music and ritual.”
Certain currents emerge from even the most eclectic musicians, and in Watson’s case it has been the form of the duo: his decade-old collaboration with bassist John Lindberg, his work with singer Linda Sharrock, his collaboration on Mingus’ music with Lacy. One on one, the first requirement of communication. But these days, Watson is concentrating more on working with his trio of drummer Ed Thigpen — known for his work with Oscar Peterson, Chico Freeman and Benny Golson — and a fellow American in Paris, bass-player Joe Carver. On July 30 they will be playing in the courtyard of the Hôtel d’Albret as part of the Paris Quartier d’Eté Festival. And will we be hearing some truly crazy stuff? “Count on it.”