Obituary: Benny Waters

IN HIS obituary of Benny Waters [14 August], Steve Voce offers the surprising opinion that Waters was not a great alto player, writes Barry Fantoni.

Undeniably he was not as influential as his pupil Johnny Hodges, or as innovative as Ornette Coleman, but clearly greatness is measured in many different ways. I can see that there is a problem of assessing Waters and it applies to any artist who works on through their nineties. In jazz, veterans are a rare breed and Waters emerges as almost unique.

So how do we judge him? I would say that his playing in the last decade of his life more resembles a late painting by Titian, who was so hard of seeing towards the end that he dispensed with brushes and worked with the tips of his fingers. The result was a series of sparse and understated works that left more than a little to the spectator's imagination. In the case of Benny Waters, no matter what tune he played, he always treated it with respect, always trying to present it to the listener as an individual work. His phrasing, like that of the young Miles Davis, was sparse yet full of meaning, again leaving the listener to fill in the gaps.

It is true that, in his last period, Waters could be heard to wobble a bit on long notes, but his was forever the essence of warmth and latterly gilded with the wistfulness of an old man looking back to happy days. In this, even his blues had a smile - a sign of true greatness.