Nu-soul singer Erykah Badu says about flutist Dwayne Kerr, "As I watch my friend in amazement, the high tones and the trills become part of me, helping me to grow on stage. I don’t know which is sweeter, his tone or his soul."
Who is this man that has made such an impression on Erykah Badu you might be asking yourself? He is actually a very humble person raised in Central Islip, Long Island, family-oriented, and earnestly inspired by passages from the Bible. As a flutist he expresses, "My main goal is to let people see that the flute can be a lead instrument and should be included with the saxophone, guitar, and piano. That my music will touch people’s hearts and be a place to escape if only for an hour or whatever."
Dwayne Kerr’s latest album Higher Calling released by Dmanns Music Group features the penetrating vocals of Erykah Badu and the emotive saxophone twirls of Kirk Whalum. Kerr credits his friend Whalum for convincing him to push forward with his solo work, "Some years ago I was considering leaving the business," he reveals, "and Kirk encouraged me to pursue my career. A couple of years later, I was playing for Erykah Badu and getting to tour the world and experience all kinds of things musically and socially, so it was very important for me to have Kirk involved with the project. I think our musical dialogue on ‘Being With You’ is great. The musical exchange that takes place during the song, oftentimes, is reminiscent of a call and response type of thing between the flute and sax."
Kerr describes about his attachment to the flute, "It’s true that the flute register is higher than the sax, but honestly I prefer playing in the flutes mid-to-low register as opposed to the higher register. That’s one of the reasons why I started playing the alto flute. The lower register on the flute has a dark rich sound which I find to be more natural when expressing myself."
He explains that unlike his debut album Flutation in 2001, his new album Higher Calling would take the listener on a musical ride that goes beyond just hearing the flute and integrate the flute with other instruments in a harmonious way. Kerr shows strong diplomatic skills in his recordings which allows everyone to shine.
"When I set out to record Higher Calling, as opposed to Flutation, my main focus was to make a feel good record not a really good flute CD, but a record that just felt good to listen to. That was my main goal and the flute happens to be the instrument I play."
He remarks, "Higher Calling musically was really about setting up that vibe as a vehicle for the flute to ride on so that Dwayne the Flutist could stretch out. The title Higher Calling was intentional. The inspiration actually comes from several verses in the Bible (Philippians 3-13-15). The chapter talks about what God has done for mankind and that we need to live in light of those things, not looking back to the past of our lives but to the future God has for each one of us. I used that as my inspiration musically to push ahead in starting and completing the CD Higher Calling."
Erykah Badu who sings on "Ain’t No Sunshine" from Higher Calling, turns the tables on Kerr who is now placed in the driver’s seat. "It was so cool working with Erykah on my project," he glows. "She made me feel very comfortable in the studio. The first thing she said to me in the studio before we got started was ‘You’re the boss, just tell me what you need me to do.’ That really set the tone of the session for me. From that point on it was easy. As far as the evolving of the song, I actually recorded and finished laying all the flute parts on ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ with Erykah’s vocals in mind a year prior to Erykah singing on the track. Working with Erykah for the past nine years on stage and in the studio gave me a pretty good idea of how I thought she would approach the vocals and interact with my flute. When recording my flute parts, I would imagine Erykah singing along with me."
He tells, "95% of Higher Calling was recorded at Persico Recording Studios in Queens, New York, the rest at Icon Studios in California. I was trying to keep a consistent sound throughout the CD. Some of the other collaborations on the project are the producers Hubert Eaves IV, Jeff Feinstein, Matt Marshak and R.C. Williams. They helped me define and shape my sound. Most of the CD is mid to up tempos, what I call feel good or riding music. The melodies for the most part are short catchy melodies. Something you would whistle or hum to yourself."
Kerr hopes to go on tour for Higher Calling with these musicians as he promptly adds, "I’m hoping Higher Calling will be well received and give me an opportunity to tour." He presents, "Basically the guys playing on the CD make up ‘The Funky Flute Band.’ I love their sound and I think it will be the best of both worlds to get to perform live with the guys who helped me record Higher Calling."
Before Dwayne Kerr became a world traveler and an acclaimed solo artist, he was a young man growing up on Long Island. "I grew up in Central Islip on Long Island, New York. I wouldn’t say I’m attached to my hometown, however, I do love Long Island," he proclaims. For the release of his debut album Flutation, Dwayne Kerr played a short in-store concert and signed autographs afterwards at Tower Records which was located in Carle Place, Long Island.
"I had a pretty normal childhood growing up on Long Island," he elicits. "I was afforded certain things as far as various music programs that were provided in the school system throughout my school years. Like most places you would find out about the Jazz heads, you know people who are into jazz music. One of my early influences would be International Art of Jazz (IAJ). They ran jazz workshops and clinic’s on Long Island and my long-time mentor Mr. Ranny Reeves a piano teach and composer."
His interest in jazz music began with his parents influence. "My father introduced me to Bobbi Humphrey, Herbie Mann and of course Hubert Laws. I grew up mainly listening to those three as far as flutists go. My role models were always people I knew - my Mom, Dad, and my Nana (grandmother). Definitely, people whose lives directly touched mine." He shares, "Actually both my parents played instruments growing up. My Dad played the violin growing up but he stopped after a while because it wasn’t his first instrument of choice. My Mom on the other hand was a music major in college (in piano) for a time before she realized that she had a bad case of stage fright."
Kerr attended Nassau Community College, SUNY at Stony Brook and SUNY in Old Westbury where he was trained in classical jazz. He briefs about his background, "I started playing the flute around 10 years old and I mostly took the typical band lessons on flute throughout school until about my senior year in high school. During that time, I studied piano, drums, and a little guitar on and off through my junior high school years."
The music he played then he says was "much of what you commonly hear from other musicians. I did the home show/concert thing for my friends and family. Of course, I played in the school band but I also played in many different music bands growing up. Mostly doing covers of other people’s music and as I got older some originals. Mostly, I played along with my Bobbi Humphrey, Herbie Mann, Hubert Laws and George Benson albums along with countless others."
He experienced an international audience for the first time when he was chosen to be a flutist for the orchestra that performed at the 1996 Olympic Games held in Atlanta, Georgia. He recalls, "I was contacted by my cousin, Monica Taylor about playing for a wedding. We hadn’t spoken in a while so we started catching up, next thing I know she’s telling me about being involved with the Olympics so I sent my press kit to her and she forwarded it to a committee. Next thing I know I’m making arrangements to fly down to the Olympics. What can I say, the whole experience was great from flying down there to the rehearsals for the show and the performance which was in the athlete’s village, a private performance for them. It was a very special time for me as a person and a musician."
Two years later, Kerr was playing in Erykah Badu’s band. He recounts, "My friend (and engineer) Gordon Mack III who mixed Higher Calling was doing sound for Erykah when he called me one day out of the blue and said ‘Erykah is looking for a horn player. Come down to rehearsal and let her hear you.’ That was nine years ago and I’ve been with her since then. There’s so much to learn and in fact I’m still learning. I think one of the most important things is allowing the musicians you work with to add or be able to contribute to your sound. Ultimately, music is about coming together collectively to create something that is hopefully better than the individuals. Anyway, that’s how I see it."
Kerr also played on Badu’s remake of Chaka Khan’s single "Hollywood" for Spike Lee’s movie Bamboozled. He recollects, "I was concerned about pleasing Erykah because she was the one involved with the production. The way I see it when you’re working for an artist or whoever, your first concern should be tying to get the sound that they’re looking for. If I can do that then I’m satisfied because it’s really not about me as a flutist or artist. It’s about the project and complimenting what’s going on in the production. It can vary depending on who has hired you and what their looking for on the project."
While in Erykah Badu’s band, Kerr had the opportunity to go on her world tours and play to thousands of people. It is when he discovered that it all felt very natural for him to be on stage and to entertain people. "I can’t say that I’ve ever been nervous or concerned about their reaction. I find that people in other countries are generally a little more open to different styles or genres of music than in the States." He remembers, "The concerts are pretty much the same wherever we perform. I am inspired after visiting different countries and being exposed to different cultures and music."
He asserts, "I’ve pretty much have had a desire to record my own projects from the time my father turned me on to Bobbi Humphrey, Herbie Mann, and Hubert Laws. I wanted to be able to make my own music and hopefully be able to touch someone the way I had been touched through their music."
He acknowledges the differences between being a sideman and being a frontman are manifold, but these adjustments are natural for him as he relishes being the diplomatic and making certain that everyone plays a role in his recordings. He notes about being a sideman, "The difference is the spotlight isn’t always on you and the burden or weight of the show doesn’t fall on you. You’re just one of the pieces that make it go. When I’m the frontman or lead artist for my shows, I am much more animated and colorful not just as the artist but as a person. People want to be able to connect with you and share in the experience of the show. As the front man, you have the opportunity to share that with the audience."
Kerr has paved his own way as a solo artist and as a jazz flutist. He has taken an instrument that only has a handful of recognizable musicians behind it and made it into an instrument that has the ability to touch people’s hearts. He followed what he believed and offers the same advice to young artists as he provides, "My advice to aspiring artists getting started in the music profession would be to learn everything that you can about the profession, not only your horn but all of the different areas that are related to it - marketing, promotion, radio, etc. And the other thing is to be true to yourself and your music."
Dwayne Kerr shows that working in earnest brings the right people into your path and being a diplomat produces the best product that you are capable of putting out. It works for him and comes to him as naturally as the eight phases of the moon.