A solo debut that taps on the shoulder of many genres is the latest outstanding contribution by the Assistant Principal French horn player for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bob Watt. His symphonic career has spanned nearly four decades, and he was the first African-American French horn player in a major US orchestra.
“I Play French Horn” is a CD that delves into classical (Ravel and Bach) and spirituals. Then for another flavor altogether, Watt ventures into Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and an original composition by the CD’s producer Todd Cochran, which Watt commissioned in the memory of his friend, the late Miles Davis. Called “Missing Miles,” this track is, at first, paced openly, allowing for wonderment about the life and musical style of Miles. Gathering speed, the song exemplifies the dexterity and command which Watt has over his horn, or even vice versa.
Think the French horn can’t be brazen and rounded, taunting, haunting, mournful and much more? Watt’s command of his instrument is enlightening, delicious and high-swingin’.
You were very single-minded in getting a French horn in your hands. What is it about this instrument over, say, the trumpet?
My father played the trumpet and tried to teach me, but when I heard the French horn
it was all over. I fell in love with the sound…a sound I had been hearing for years on TV and radio, but didn’t know what it was, but I was extremely attracted to it.
Talk about your jazz sensibility – how Miles’ story inspires you.
When first taking up the French horn, I had no musical sensibility, jazz or classical. I just wanted to play the French horn. Where ever this instrument went I wanted to go.
Of course Miles Davis just simply impressed me with how much music he had recorded and performed before I was born. While at his house he showed me all the recordings he had done, making me feel like I hadn’t lived at all.
What do you think are the intersecting points between classical and contemporary jazz?
All points intersect with the concept of new ideas, on the spot improvisation, never repeating any musical idea and never looking back, always inventing, and the new. When my girlfriend at the time asked Miles if he would go back to wearing a natural hair style he laughed at us and said, “I can’t go back to that shit now, I’m too hip for that. I’ve moved on from that long ago.
What can you say about the sound of the French horn – its dimensions and depth of emotion?
The French horn sound is hauntingly beautiful, soul-touching, regal, romantic, rustic, raucous, and insanely exciting.
Because of its large range it has many different musical voices, like brassy, stopped horn, muted horn, half-stopped, covered and extremely loud if need be.
In your early music education what was the most beneficial lesson you learned?
That no instrumentalist is above doing the basics.
What is the most important lesson you’ve discovered for yourself as an accomplished symphony orchestra musician?
First and foremost, listen to the orchestra and how your part relates to the whole.
Listening and feeling can sometimes be more important than counting.
“Blue Rondo” is the first time I heard the horn growl like that! How so?
That growl is called flutter tongue, done by rolling the tongue inside the mouth as the air goes into the instrument.
What is the jazz scene like where you live?
Ah! I live in Los Angeles, where there are certain venues that bring in the big jazz names, but they are few for a city the size of Los Angeles.
What is the most exciting performance you have been a part of?
Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 – “Symphony of a Thousand” – in Carnegie Hall.
What small clubs around the world are your top favorites?
Well, of course Blue Note in NY, Copenhagen has a really nice one near Tivoli, there used to be a great one here in Redondo Beach, The Light House, and several in Germany and Austria.
How would you describe your specific style and sound?
I have a traditional, characteristic horn sound, bordering on romantic.
What prompted the timing of your upcoming solo debut?
It was actually a loose end that needed to be tied up. I recorded the album many years ago.
Give a few highlights of working on this album and what is the name of it?
The name of the album is “I Play French Horn.” I chose this title because whenever I told people I play with Los Angeles Philharmonic they would always ask, “What do you play the drums; or, what do you sing?”
The most enjoyable work to record was the “Gullah Novella,” because it had so many other artists and I got to conduct.
What track was the most difficult to produce and why?
The most difficult track was the Ravel “Forlane,” because the guitar challenged the tuning of the horn. We had to record horn and guitar separately because of balance issues. I remember pushing in all of my tuning slides to keep from over adjusting the tuning when playing. So I worked with the guitar separately until I could play comfortably with it.
What track was the most fun to record?
Again, the “Gullah Novella” because of the voices…and the anvil sound played by percussionist Raynor Carroll.
Talk about your ensemble and how they mesh with you; also did they have prior experience collaborating with a French horn player?
There was no one regular ensemble. The musicians were hired just for this one recording.
How have you marketed this new CD?
The CD is on Amazon and all the streaming sights plus the record label MSR Classics has a website.
For more information, visit www.robertleewatt.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Bob Watt/Peter McDowell Arts Consulting.
© Debbie Burke 2018