Jazz guitarist and academic Neil Watson has a well-earned reputation as one of Auckland’s go-to sidemen. His played- and recorded-with credits traverse ground as varied as the Finn brothers, Tami Neilson, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, and fellow local jazz legends like Frank Gibson and Mike Nock. He tells Aleisha Ward it’s just that sort of genre variety that keeps him interested and helped lead to his recently released album ‘Studies In Tubular’.
Auckland guitarist Neil Watson began his musical journey at age 11 after seeing Eric Clapton at Auckland’s Supertop. After a few years of emulating the usual rock guitar gods Watson discovered jazz, and soon became a “fully fledged member of the jazz Gestapo”.
Like many Kiwi jazz musicians he had dreams of attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, or the New School in New York to further study jazz – and he got into both schools. Unfortunately, the exorbitant costs in the 1990s to get a student visa and pay the U.S. fees meant that, even with scholarships, it was impossible for him to to attend. Instead Watson stayed in Auckland wood-shedding, taking lessons with local and visiting guitarists, and getting gigs anywhere and everywhere.
“In the early days I learned from a lot of people like Johnny Bradford, he was great, and as far as the jazz kind of thing went. I guess a lot of people like Andy Brown, and Frank Gibson, and a lot of those people that I looked up to. Murray McNabb as well, and Brian Smith – he was a tutor of mine at high school and helped me out a lot. Neville Grenfell too was teaching at my high school. Also, Martin Winch and Joel Haines – this is going back to the Cause Celebre years [1990s], and I used to enjoy going to watch those guys there. Greg Tui was another huge influence on me.
“I had a number of lessons from Bruce Forman. He really set me straight on a couple of things when I was 18 or 19. He just told it straight, and I needed that. When I went to the States on a Rodger Fox tour I had lessons with guys over there, including Peter Bernstein who’s one of my favourite guitar players, and another guy called Peter Mazza, who’s really great.
“On the second Fox tour I did, we were at the Monterey [Jazz] Festival, and Bill Frisell was headlining. I saw him three times over two days! And that just totally blew my mind, and changed my perception of how to play the guitar. Before that I was trying to emulate horn players, which is a great thing to do, but watching Bill I realised I could play the guitar – bend strings, use open strings, use effects pedals, and actually embrace the nuances of guitar and make the most of it. It really opened up my eyes to playing the guitar as a guitar.”
Over the past 20 years Watson has developed into one of Auckland’s go-to sidemen, performing and recording with a wide range of artists from the Auckland Philharmonia to Mel Parsons to Mike Nock to the Finn brothers, criss-crossing his way around almost every musical genre.
“I love the variety, and that’s what keeps me going. In a week I could be doing a duo gig with Frank Gibson, playing with Tami Neilson and then some other side project with Jim Langabeer – and then maybe a theatre show rehearsal or something like that. So it’s always kind of different and that’s what keeps me really interested, I guess.
“I like that challenge, all the different feels and genres, and just playing with so many great musicians as well. And while it’s sort of a necessity, these days I don’t find myself in an environment where I’m not enjoying playing music, which is great.”
It brings up some great possibilities as well and one recent highlight was being able to open for American guitarist Marc Ribot.
“Just seeing him play – because he’s been a huge influence on me in the past decade. He’s another guy that I really respect because he traverses all these different genres and has these different projects. One day you might see him doing this really avant garde/classical solo thing, and another he could be playing thrash-punk, the next day he’s backing Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. And through all that you can really tell that it’s him – you don’t hire Marc Ribot to sound like someone else!
“That’s what I’m trying to do. I made a decision about a decade ago to consciously try and do that. Say if I was doing a jazz gig with Caitlin Smith, I didn’t necessarily have to take my jazz guitar along and play bop lines – I could play country lines if I wanted to!
“So I’m influenced by lots of different types of music, and that was the idea behind ‘Studies in Tubular’. Just putting all of those influences together; blues and rock and country and jazz, and trying to improvise and compose – without going, ‘Well, now I’m playing a jazz tune so I’d better have nice clean lines,’ or ‘I’m doing a rock gig so I’d better take my Strat along.’ So instead of putting on different hats, now I just wear my Neil hat all the time, no matter what scenario I’m in.”
This diverse approach also transfers across into his leadership roles with groups ranging from jazz to Hawaiian-influenced pop, blues, rock and country.
“One group I’ve got – The Doughboys – that just came about organically. I was doing a jazz trio gig with Cam Allen and Rui Inaba. I wasn’t even supposed to be doing it, I was just filling in for the drummer, playing guitar. I’d just bought a lapsteel guitar so we did a couple of Hawaiian tunes on the gig, and it just went from there. Now we’ve got an album that’s about to come out – we’re mastering now and it should be released soon.”
‘Studies in Tubular’ is being released nearly 16 years after his first album ‘Unification’. This album came out of his Masters of Music study back in 2011.
“I guess I saw the Masters as a great opportunity to do this album and some of the things that I’d wanted to do anyway, so it was the perfect time to get me off my butt and do it. So that was a good motivator to get the momentum going.”
Doing it as part of his degree work also helped push him to not only compose, record and finish it, but also to actually get it out to the public. ‘Studies in Tubular’ features several other well known lecturers from the University of Auckland’s jazz programme: Ron Samsom, Roger Manins, Oli Holland, Grant Winterburn plus Louis McCallum and Geoff Maddock. The album was recorded in live sessions over two days at Rick Bryant’s former Auckland Studios in Eden Terrace.
“We had two days in there with Ed Cake engineering. That studio space was sort of a collective of people and their gear, but it was really well set up, which was really great. It was important to me to take it out of the university environment, just to get away from the academia thing going on.”
‘Studies in Tubular’ reflects Watson’s diverse approach to music.
“A lot of the tunes on the album are actually quite old, things that I had written around or just after ‘Unification’. So I decided to use them as a vehicle and bring them all together for that idea of trying to create my own sound and voice.
“Wes De Money I wrote in my early 20s as a Wes Montgomery call and response sort of tune, so that was initially a straight ahead swing tune, but another influence that came in was a Hendrix tune Driving South, which was a jam tune of his. On the other hand Kerala, which is sort of a country tune, I wrote that in India and I was trying to do a sort of Travis picking thing. I had a travel guitar and I’d play for about 10 minutes before travelling each day. Boog A-Gee was my interpretation of The Sidewinder [Lee Morgan] I love all of that kind of 1960s Bluenote, Grant Green, Lou Donaldson boogaloo stuff. I like to take little bits and pieces, mashing it together in a big gumbo. It’s good to have musical references that you’re familiar with.”