Jeff “Tain” Watts Birthday Celebration at Keystone Korner!

Jazz Buddies,

This past weekend, BG&E reports of seismic power surges covering the Fells Point grid in Baltimore were not totally without merit.  In fact, they were correct!  The great drummer, Jeff “Tain” W-a-t-t-s, was celebrating his 63rd birthday over Friday/Saturday evenings at Keystone Korner, displaying thunderous and explosive bursts of energy on his drums.  His all-star quintet included legendary seasoned veterans Gary Thomas (ts/fl) and Paul Bollenback (g), along with ‘young lions’, James Francies (p) and Chris Smith (b).

Watts, a Pittsburgh native, first came on the scene as a member of Wynton Marsalis’s quartet/quintet from 1981-88.  He then joined Branford Marsalis’s quartet in 1989 and remained through 2009.  During these periods, Watts also played and recorded with such luminaries as: Betty Carter, McCoy Tyner, Alice Coltrane, Geri Allen, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ricky Ford, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, Danilo Perez, and Robin Eubanks, just to name a few.  He has led his own groups ever since, as well as released several albums/CDs.

Watts and Branford Marsalis met while both were Berklee College of Music students in Boston.  He was later given his nickname, “Tain”, by pianist Kenny Kirkland while touring with Wynton Marsalis in Texas as they passed a Chieftain gas station. 

Reminiscent of the Elvin Jones school of drumming, Watts style of playing displays incredible speed, raw power, and complex rhythms, all the while keeping time like a Rolex watch…  And all of these skillz were acutely on display at Keystone Korner last weekend!

I was fortunate enough to catch the 2nd set on Saturday (arriving from a “previous engagement”).  The extended 100-minute set comprised of Watt’s wonderful original songs played by incredible musicians, with the exception of a tune by Kenny Kirkland*:

Set List

  1. Of August Moon (for August Wilson)
  2. Fisherman’s Friend
  3. Chance* (K. Kirkland)
  4. Ell-Egy (for Ellis Marsalis)
  5. Covert-19


  1. Snarkasm
  2. Katrina James (tribute to Hurricane Katrina & James Brown)
  3. Seed Of Blackzilla

Watts was kind enough to explain the backstories of each composition, but then let his drums sticks do the talking for the remainder of the evening, especially through his “drop the mike!” drum solos.  Bollenback displayed beautiful guitar sounds with sweeping pick speed.  And Thomas, playing more flute than his customary tenor sax, showed a graceful, mellow sound as contrasted to his robust and grainy tenor sax sound.  The young lions, Francies and Smith, held their own, with the former showing a light touch on the ivories especially during ballad introductions, while the latter held it down as Watt’s “partner in time”…

Having listened to many of Watts previous CDs, I can attest first hand to his exceptional composition skills.  (Check out his Monk-ish “Dingle Dangle”, “Return of the Jitney Man”, and “Little Michael”.)

Watts and his crew energetically closed the set with a three-song medley.  Overall, a tremendous birthday treat for all of US who were fortunate enough to be in attendance….  Happy Birthday, “Tain”!!!

Special thanks to Todd Barkan for ‘technical assistance’ in documenting the set list!