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Trevor Watts talks mud showers and cigarette fights in his Spontaneous Music Ensemble Portal

October 2016

“It was life and death at times”. Following Daniel Spicer's Primer on Spontaneous Music Ensemble in The Wire 392, Trevor Watts reflects on bizarre encounters and key moments from a life of gigging

Palermo POP Festival in Sicily circa 1971

John Stevens was always interested in musicians who were talented but on a different musical scene. That's why he played with Donovan, John Martyn, Charlie Watts, and a gig at the Roundhouse (which I was also involved in) with two drummers – John Stevens and Phil Collins. Phil was really excited about doing more but it never came together.

Another artist was Julie Driscoll (now Tippetts) after she'd left the commercial scene and had not been playing for a couple of years. John somehow got through to her and asked her if she would like to get involved, also encouraged her to use guitar as well as voice, and she said yes. This was a favourite group of mine within the SME family.

Julie still had her manager who was Giorgio Gomelsky, and he did a small amount of booking for us. One concert was at the Palermo POP Festival in Sicily. The music was similar to that on this link. The festival was inside a football stadium and during our performance half the audience started to throw earth and mud wrapped in newspaper at us, so we moved back on stage a little and carried on. It was very challenging. At the same time the other half were cheering and chanting Julie! Julie! Beautiful chaos. It is the only time I have ever been locked in a dressing room, partly because Julie's fans wanted to get to her, and the other fans also wanted to get to us for very different reasons.

There's a film from the same era from a gig for Norwegian TV that took place at the Sonja Henie Nils Onsted Foundation in around 1971, and is a dedication to Albert Ayler.

San Sebastian Jazz Festival mid–1970s

In the earlier days of improv there were more challenges coming from the audience area than there is now. The SME were booked to play on the San Sebastian Jazz Festival. I remember there being a lot of older Jazz musicians like Barney Bigard, Joe Jones etc. and many from the Ellington Band. In fact John Stevens decided to have a discussion about drumming with Joe Jones and I remember Joe Jones not really liking the way it was going. John was always up for a challenge and didn't let basic respect for others get in the way of what he wanted to say, and so it was on this occasion. That was the preamble in the hotel before the concert with quite a few beers flowing as always.

The concert was packed – it was in a room with a low stage and the audience were breathing down our necks. Suddenly some guy leaps up on stage with a trumpet and just started blasting away. At this point John, who also used a trumpet, and had it there on stage ready for when he did want to use it, immediately stopped drumming, picked his trumpet up and started to blast away. There they were facing each other and playing into the others bell at as loud a volume as you could get. The band at this point started to drift one by one to the safety of the dressing room until some security guys came and took the trumpeter away. I don't think the audience settled down very well after that, and neither did the musicians. But the show must go on, and did!

These trips abroad were always fraught with things that went wrong or too much alcohol was drunk which affected peoples judgement. But John always had a way of showing his control. We were on a cross channel ferry and had bought our duty free cigarettes, 200 at a time, and he said to me "give me one of your cigarettes", I said "no", and he tried to grab mine. I stopped him and we ended up writhing around on the floor in this semi mock fight, as neither of us were going for it, except people on the boat thought it real and crowded around us. This before we even got anywhere near the first gig.

There was an intensity about that first group of improvisers, and that was brought about by trying to establish the music in the first place. It was life and death at times and that incident, although silly, was a reflection of that.

Trevor Watts Moire Music 1985

This was the first version of Moire Music I started in 1982. I was asked to do the Bracknell Jazz Festival opposite Pig Bag, followed by Lester Bowie. The reception we got for the music was fabulous and I later got a Bracknell commission to write for and extend the band adding singers Maggie Nicols, Pinise Saul and Phil Minton.

This particular clip features almost all the original participants apart from Stuart Hall depping on violin and Simon Pickard had taken over the tenor chair from Larry Stabbins who started to concentrate on Working Week. The other violinist is Peter Knight, ex of Steeleye Span, who I reconnected with when moving to Hastings (back in the late 1960s, John Stevens, Peter and I had all worked for Boosey & Hawkes music publishers in Upper Regent St, John in the hire library, Pete upstairs selling violins and myself working as a proof reader. Also a guy called Chris Squires, who had a little band called Yes, working packing instruments up).

Anyway I started to write music with an idea of this band when I left London to live in Hastings in around 1980 - my son was getting asthmatic by living next to the Great North Rd in Highgate. Victor Schonfield phoned me years later and told me everyone thought I'd abandoned the scene. This was the first thing I did after leaving London and as well as starting my first Drum Orchestra that preceded the Moire Drum Ork at the same time – one for the compositional aspects of what I do, and one for the improv. John Stevens had heard I got the Bracknell Jazz Festival and because of that phoned me up and said. "Trev I think you should consult with me before applying for any festival as I may want to" So I had to say "You apply for them all John because that's what I am going to do". He was still trying to control the situation, but I couldn't have any of that any more. That was the big break after 20 years.

Trevor Watts Moire Music Drum Orchestra 1993

I formed the Trevor Watts Original Drum Orchestra in 1982 previously having met and played with Ghanaian percussionist Nana Tsiboe within a Louis Moholo group accompanying USA tenorist Frank Wright. Nana and I seemed to get on very well, so when I formed that band as an improvising group using rhythm and melody, but no arrangements Nana was first choice. We also had Sierra Leone percussionist Mamadi Kamara and South African bassist Ernest Mothle as well as drummer Liam Genockey and violinist Peter Knight. In 1990 he introduced me to all these Ghanaian drummers. We hit it off in a good way, and Nee Daku Patato, who was also playing with Osibisa, he loved the freedom of the music.

We never spoke about what we were going to do. We worked it out on the hoof and the first tour was six weeks long in Canada/USA down to Mexico for the Cervantinho Festival and on to Venezuela. Eventually I toured most places in the world – Burma, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Ecuador, South Africa and so on. It was always a blast. You can tell by watching and listening to this the exuberance we all felt. My improvisational skills honed over those years helped me greatly in this respect. On this occasion it is actually a composition of mine called "Opening Gambit". It was very important for me to connect with members of the African community living here, and especially as rhythm was at the heart of what I enjoyed being part of.

Trevor Watts & Veryan Weston

Veryan Weston and I have come along way since the days of him being in the piano chair of the ten piece Moire Music group, but before then we knew each other at the Little Theatre Club, where in those days he seemed one of the youngest there. Everything we do as a duo is complete improvisation, and we are open to the use of any element in music, noise, melody, rhythm or whatever. This piece just happens to come out the way it does because of the instantaneous decisions we make, but of course there's the familiarity with each other and a sense of communal music making with trust and integrity. I think this piece reflects both our interests in rhythm as much as anything else – it helps to give you the ability to place your contributions in a more telling space.

Mark French is in the process of making a new film which has the duo with the addition of violinist Peter Knight, old playing companions. Pete adds another dimension and texture to the overall sound. It's going to be a great film I am sure.

The Spontaneous Music Ensemble Primer by Daniel Spicer appeared in The Wire 392. Subscribers can read that on Exact Editions.


A fascinating read and watch Trevor! As you may recall I'm a big fan of your music, especially the wonderful Amalgam "Prayer for peace" - one of my all-time favourite records (among thousands in my life time collection!) Great anecdotes and a top Wire issue too.

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