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British saxophonist Trevor Watts was first associated with the British free jazz and improvised music scene during the mid-'60s. He became well known for his involvement in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and in other projects with drummer John Stevens. During the '70s Watts led the multifaceted group Amalgam, moving on to his African music-inspired Moiré Music projects from the '80s to the turn of the millennium. The early 2000s saw Watts incorporate Moiré Music concepts into the music of his Hastings, England-based Celebration Band while, as the decade progressed, he became involved in more intimate musical settings, including a return to creative improvisation in a duo with longtime musical collaborator pianist Veryan Weston.
Watts was raised in Halifax, West Yorkshire, where he listened to his father's jazz and swing records and taught himself to play an alto saxophone he received as a gift from his parents. He joined the Royal Air Force and was stationed in Germany during the late '50s and early '60s; during this time he first met, and began making music with, trombonist Paul Rutherford and Stevens. Once he left the RAF, Watts helped found the New Jazz Orchestra, which occasionally backed up rock musicians as well as bluesmen such as Sonny Boy Williamson. The mid-'60s saw the formation of a quintet with Stevens and Rutherford, given the Spontaneous Music Ensemble moniker when London's Little Theatre Club opened its doors in 1966. The improvisation-based SME went through many lineup changes, with Watts departing the group in 1967 to form Amalgam, which initially included trombonist Rutherford and bassist Barry Guy, but first recorded as a trio featuring Watts with drummer Stevens and either Jeff Clyne or Guy on bass (as heard on Prayer for Peace, their 1969 Transatlantic Records debut disc). While Amalgam became a going concern for the saxophonist over the next decade, he also returned to the SME and collaborated on a variety of other projects. Watts and Stevens formed the core of a rotating cast of musicians in the SME until Watts left the group for a final time in the mid-'70s; the saxophonist also played with Guy and other top British improvisers in the London Jazz Composers Orchestra.
While the SME became best known as an outlet for free improvisation, Amalgam featured Watts-composed themes as points of departure for free jazz-styled explorations. The group proved to be an ever-evolving project, guided by Watts but also providing its diverse membership with the freedom to express their unique musical identities. Beginning as an acoustic group, Amalgam experienced numerous lineup changes (featuring pianist Keith Tippett on Innovation, released in 1975 by Tangent Records) and ultimately morphed into an electric band in the mid- to late '70s, centering around Watts on alto and soprano saxophones and the rhythm section of bassist Colin McKenzie and drummer Liam Genockey. Several guitarists passed through the group's ranks during this electric period, including AMM's Keith Rowe, featured in a quartet lineup between 1978 and 1980. Watts later described this period of Amalgam — documented by the four-LP live box set Wipe Out on the Impetus label in 1979 — as one of the group's most creative, particularly given the bandmembers' ability to find commonality of expression given their individual backgrounds in such diverse areas as free jazz, creative improvisation, blues, rock, funk, soul, and abstract sound art.
Although Watts had often been associated with free music, the '80s and '90s found him leading a number of groups under the Moiré Music moniker, focusing on African rhythms as a foundation for both composition and improvisation. These Moiré Music ensembles — which began as a ten-piece band following Watts' move to Hastings in 1980 — featured a wide variety of configurations under such names as the Moiré Music Trio, Moiré Music Sextet, and Moiré Music Drum Orchestra (a merger of Moiré Music and the Trevor Watts Drum Orchestra, the latter of which he formed in 1982). These groups issued recordings on various labels including ECM (the Moiré Music Drum Orchestra's A Wider Embrace, 1994), Cadillac (the Moiré Music Sextet's Saalfelden Encore, 1987), Intakt (Moiré Music Trio, 1995), and Watts' own Arc imprint (Trevor Watts' Moiré Music, 1985; With One Voice, 1988; Live at the Athens Concert Hall, 2000).
In 1999, Watts reunited with violinist Peter Knight (of Steeleye Span), who had once played in Moiré Music, for a series of duo shows, one of which was subsequently documented on the album Reunion Live in London (Hi4Head Records, 2008). Also in 1999, Watts began conducting workshops for local musicians organized by percussionist Jamie Harris under the auspices of a Brighton, England-based community arts organization to prepare for an outdoor performance in Hastings; the workshops and performance proved so successful that Watts formed a permanent band featuring the participants and other invited musicians. Under the name Trevor Watts & the Celebration Band, the octet — which gave an exuberant "street band" spin to Moiré Music concepts — recorded and released an eponymous album in 2001 on the Arc imprint, and subsequently embarked on tours of Europe and North America. By the mid-2000s, Watts had disbanded the group and moved on to other projects of more intimate scope, including a touring and recording duo with percussionist Harris and an ongoing improvising collaboration with pianist Veryan Weston, an original Moiré Music member. The Watts/Harris duo released Live in Sao Paulo, Brasil on Hi4Head in 2006 and Ancestry on Entropy Stereo in 2007; the Watts/Weston duo issued two albums on Emanem, 6 Dialogues in 2002 and 5 More Dialogues in 2011, followed by Dialogues in Two Places on Hi4Head in 2012. Watts also released a pair of very different solo projects in the 2000s, World Sonic, an album of solo saxophone improvisations released by Hi4Head in 2005, and The Deep Blue, a 2009 album on Jazzwerkstatt in which he essentially became a one-man Moiré Music or Celebration Band, multi-tracking himself on multi-layered arrangements of saxophones, percussion, piano, and synthesizer.
Over the years, Trevor Watts has toured all over the world, from the Americas to New Zealand. He has run workshops, received numerous grants and commissions for his music, and collaborated with a number of other widely respected jazz and improvising musicians, including Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, and Jayne Cortez. In a particularly interesting international collaboration after the turn of the millennium, Watts performed and recorded with Mexico's Gibrán Cervantes, inventor of the Urukungolo, a musical instrument with gourds and strings on a wooden frame large enough for a musician to stand inside. As Enjambre Acustico Urukungolo, Watts, Cervantes, Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, and Mexican percussionist Francisco Bringas appeared on the 2001 album Diálogos Intestinales, and a trio version of Enjambre Acustico Urukungolo featuring Watts, Cervantes, and Harris appeared on the album Mutuality, released by FMR Records in 2006. ~ Joslyn Layne & Dave Lynch, Rovi