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Charlie Watts on jazz, work ethic, music mystery ... and a group called the Rolling Stones

Charlie Watts pounds the skins on June 29, 2019 at Burl’s Creek, in Oro-Medonte, Ontario. Watts’ Aug. 24 death makes this the last Toronto-area performance by the Rolling Stones. (PHOTO: Peter Howell.)

Peter Howell

Toronto Star

The death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, 80, reminded me of an interview I had with him in the summer of 1996. The Stones were taking a breather so Charlie was on the road with the Charlie Watts Quintet, a group that allowed him to fully pursue his lifelong love of jazz. He was headed to Toronto, but having trouble with a couple of band members — who at least weren’t other members of the Stones, for a change:

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts is having a problem with two of his fellow band members.

This could mean anything from a drug scandal to a retirement announcement — if we were talking about the Stones.

The band members in question are bassist David Green and trumpeter Gerard Presencer of Watts' other act, the Charlie Watts Quintet, a considerably more refined crew than the rock characters Watts usually runs with.

But no less unpredictable, it seems. Watts is on the phone from Paris, wondering how his jazz quintet is going to perform at Massey Hall July 6 minus two-fifths of its members. Green and Presencer are tied up with other gigs.

"The problem with jazz musicians is that they have always got no work at all until you ask them to play, " grumbles Watts, 55.

"And then they're booked. It's the same always. They've never got any work, except the day you want them — and that's every day."

There's also the problem of how he's going to pull together the 21-piece orchestra that is an integral part of the Quintet's new (and fourth) album, Long Ago & Far Away. On disc, it's the London Metropolitan Orchestra backing the group on popular standards, but the cost and logistics of taking the orchestra on the Quintet's five-city North American tour, including Montreal on July 4, are considered insurmountable.

If the Stones were faced with such a predicament so close to a tour, hyperactive frontman Mick Jagger would probably burst a blood vessel. This past winter, the Stones cancelled plans for a Far East tour, the final leg of their 18-month Voodoo Lounge tour, when they ran into scheduling problems.

Watts said he doesn't know when and if the Stones will tour again, "but I don't see why we shouldn't."

As both loyal timekeeper for the Stones, and reluctant bandleader of the Quintet, Watts remains so unflappable as to barely register a pulse. He's confident everything will work out in time for his Toronto date.

Silver-haired and stone-faced, Watts has for 33 years watched every crisis imaginable from behind his drum kit, from the knife-wielding bikers of Altamont in '69 to the drug-busting RCMP raid of the Margaret Trudeau scandal in '77. A little problem of missing jazzmen and orchestra players is nothing.

"I hope it's all right, " Watts says of his Massey show, with typical understatement.

"There's a very nice jazz player in Toronto, Neil Swainson, who said he would play with us, so it will be nice."

Jazz fans will recognize Swainson as no small-time substitute. He's one of Canada's leading bassists, known internationally for his work with pianist George Shearing.

For an orchestra, it'll be local players, some from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, so this problem is an easy fix, too.

But there won't be a substitute for Presencer.

"We're going to do it without the trumpeter, and see how it goes, " Watts says.

It seems as far as Watts is concerned, they could just as well perform without him, too. He's as ego-free as a ghost, and would rather quietly rave about his bandmates and his life-long love of jazz and classic pop than talk about himself.

He's pleased when it's pointed out to him that he can barely be heard on Long Ago & Far Away, as he brushes on his snare to band and orchestra interpretations of popular standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and other legends.

"Good. I think I'm loud enough, " Watts says. "This isn't a drummer's showcase. This is all about backing a singer (Bernard Fowler), making a setting for someone to sing very beautiful songs. And he does it extremely well. I think he's a very beautiful singer. He's fantastic."

Fowler, the honorary "sixth member" of the Quintet, is best known to pop fans as the Stones' favorite back-up singer. A New York session ace, he backed Jagger on the Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge megatours, and he's also guested on every recent Stones solo album.

Watts is part of the "irreducible core" of the Stones, as guitarist Keith Richards once described him.

His just-behind-the-beat playing is unmistakable and much copied, yet unlike many other rock drummers — most recently Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and Dave Grohl of Nirvana — he has absolutely no desire to put himself in the spotlight.

He sees no difference between what he does with the Stones and what he does with the Quintet.

"It's just a different way of playing the same thing, really, " he says.

"I'm as happy playing with the Stones as with the Quintet. And my work with the Quintet (which began in 1991 with a tribute to his jazz hero, Charlie Parker) is just something that I thought I'd do.

"I don't crave it. To be honest, I've got no interest in being a solo artist, and all that. I think I play with the best band at what it does (the Stones) and that's it. I like playing drums in a band. I don't like solos and being the frontman."

Neither is he a manic home musician. When he's off stage, he never plays.

"I don't practise at home, " he says. "I never have."

Watts also doesn't read music, but that's the one perq he mentions as boss of the Quintet. Saxophone player Peter King does the arrangements, and he acts as liaison between the band and the orchestra. If Watts doesn't understand or like it, he can order King to do a new arrangement.

"Most of the things I'm given are simple, straight things, " he says. "But I'm the bandleader, so if I don't like it, I'll say, 'I'm not doing that, Pete, do it a different way.' "

Watts does wish he had learned to read music, but he's not about to change now. What he gets from both jazz and rock can't be written down.

"The real mystery of music is how it feels, " he says. "The emotion in it is a whole other unwritten love, and that's what most rock 'n' roll people mean. It's what I learned when I heard Charlie Parker, and Muddy Waters is another classic example of that.

"Someone can write the notes down, and you can learn to play those notes, but if you don't know what the feeling is of how that meter moves, then you've had it. It won't ever swing and it won't ever mean anything more than a load of notes." 🌗

(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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