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Mo Motet

Stewart Oksenhorn
Colorado groove band The Motet performs tonight at the Blue Door in Snowmass Village.
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When Dave Watts first hit the music scene – in his Syracuse, N.Y., hometown some 20 years ago, in a band he would like to forget called Driver that practiced in the basement of a pet store – Watts was hardly driving the band. He was some 15 years younger than his bandmates, and even then somewhat embarrassed by the band’s repertoire of ’80s hard-rock covers.A decade later, following several years at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Watts co-founded the funk-rock band Shockra, one of the foundations of the then nascent jam-band movement. In terms of working his way toward being a band leader, Shockra was a step in the right direction for Watts.”Shockra was the first band I felt leadership and ownership of,” said Watts, who wrote much of the material for Shockra. “But it wasn’t my band. For those moments when you write the music, you’re the band leader. But at various moments, the leadership shifts to who starts the song, who has the solo.”In 1994, Shockra folded the tent, and Watts and Shockra bassist Edwin Hurwitz relocated to Colorado, where they eventually formed the folkish-rock band Skin. After Skin’s none-too-long existence ended in 1998, Watts finally put his own name out front: the Dave Watts Motet, a groove-jazz band that could swing from Latin to African to funk, cemented Watts’ bona fides as a band leader. After a few years with his own name in lights, Watts, thinking that the combo had taken on a group identity bigger than his own, shortened the name to The Motet. But Watts was still directing the band – writing most of the music, calling the shots on the business end, and rounding up the cast of rotating players who made up the Motet from one tour to the next.

Not bad for a drummer.Being the drummer has its advantages – mainly, you get to beat the hell out of your equipment without its splintering into small pieces. And drummers can drive egomaniacal singers and assorted bandmates batty by slowing down the beat or picking up the pace mid-song.But the occupation also has its drawbacks. For one, the drummer tends to sit behind everyone else, making visual contact with the audience, and even with bandmates, difficult. For rhythmic and sonic reasons, singing and drumming don’t generally go hand-in-hand. And the drum, not being a melodic instrument, is hardly conducive to composing. Drummers who also serve as band leader, especially of rock- or pop-oriented acts, have been few in number.Watts, though, hasn’t been held back by such limitations. The Motet has risen to become a solid touring act, making numerous festival appearances – they have probably played Jazz Aspen Snowmass more than any other band – and selling out regularly at the Fox Theatre in Boulder. This past summer, they played Red Rocks, on a bill with Blues Traveler and Spearhead, in a benefit concert for the Denver Rescue Mission. They have appeared at both Fillmores, in San Francisco and Denver. This year, the band released its fourth CD, “Music for Life,” on Harmonized Records; the CD features six tunes credited to Watts.

Watts says logistics tend to be the toughest part of combining the drummer and leader jobs. “It’s a lot more difficult to get the music out there efficiently,” said the 36-year-old Watts, who brings the band to play at the Blue Door in Snowmass Village today, Dec. 3, at 9 p.m. “It’s tough to make visual cues to the other guys. So everyone has to be on it.”But as far as being a drummer goes, the drummer sets the pace. So it makes sense. But writing a song, I have to be real thorough. I can’t play the melody myself and have everyone else fall in and figure that out.”Watts began writing music in high school, and continued composing through his years at Berklee. Back then, however, he didn’t have the computer technology that has made composing infinitely less time-consuming a job. Now, Watts uses a software program called Sibelius.”Which is a godsend. Because for horn players, I have to transpose keys, which would be a nightmare if I had to chart everything out,” he said. “Using computer technology has really helped me get the music out there.”Watts says it also hasn’t been a handicap to have the Motet made up of a rotating cast of characters. Just the opposite. For most of this year, in fact, Watts expended a lot of energy trying to nail down musicians who could commit to something resembling full-time membership. But lately, he has given up on that idea in favor of recruiting players on a tour-by-tour basis.



“It made sense for me to surround myself with players who I appreciate and not focus on having a set lineup,” he said from his home in Boulder, just before he was about to dash out to snowboard at Eldora Mountain. (The current tour, a quick five stops in Colorado, features a sextet of Watts, percussionist Scott Messersmith, bassist Garrett Sayers, saxophonist Dominic Lalli, keyboardist Adam Revel and guitarist Derek VanScoten.) “I can be much more thorough about the music, rather than trying to get people who can commit fulltime. And it makes it much more interesting for me musically.”The Motet’s style, heavy on improvisation, makes it relatively easy to shuffle players in and out. “Our arrangements are pretty in-depth,” said Watts. “But the music isn’t so complex. There’s more focus on the improvisation than the complexity.”Interestingly, the one permanent member of the Motet besides Watts is another drummer, percussionist Scott Messersmith, who has been with Watts from the beginning. “We love each other’s playing and share such a similar vision,” said Watts of the New Orleans-bred Messersmith. Early on in the Motet years, Watts and Messersmith twice traveled together to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban music. Messersmith is going to Brazil this winter to soak up the South American influences; Watts hopes to make his own trip there soon, and is going to Costa Rica this winter. But while they travel to the Latin world, the biggest influence of the moment is Afro-Beat.

“Last New Year’s, we did a whole night of [late Afro-Beat legend] Fela Kuti, and I learned a lot digging into that material,” said Watts. “Right after that, I started writing music that had that in it, and a lot of those songs made their way onto [“Music for Life”]. I don’t try to identify the Motet by any specific genre. But that’s a great style for us to get into.”The Motet has made it a Halloween custom to play composer-themed shows, playing a tour devoted to a certain artist: Prince this year; Tower of Power, Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder in previous years. Each tour culminates with a Halloween show at Watt’s hometown venue, the Fox Theatre.To further round out his musicianship, Watts plays in a variety of other projects. He – along with several former members of the Motet posse – backed String Cheese Incident keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth on his new solo debut, “Never Odd or Even.” That band will play on the Jam Cruise, a four-day concert cruise ship that leaves Florida in January, and also tour from late February to mid-March. Watts is also part of Speaking in Tongues, a band that plays mostly spontaneous music and has appeared in Aspen several times.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com