Ken Watters is one of the finest young trumpet players to come along in a very long while, and in addition to performing, he is a composer of such intricate and entertaining songs such as "Sommerset Road," "Judy Rebecca," "Port-au-Prince," among others.
His is a unique trumpet voice that utilizes the best of contemporary jazz motifs, shadings, and tone colors. He has a pure joy of expression in his horn which he openly shares with jazz listeners! Ken Watters is one of the best of the best trumpet performers in jazz.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Ken, it is a pleasure to visit with you, and let me start this interview by saying you have one of the finest jazz trumpet sounds in contemporary jazz! What was your inspiration in putting together your new release, BROTHERS II?
KEN WATTERS: Thanks for saying that, Lee! Having lived in New York City for a number of years, that really means a lot. There are SO many great trumpet players on the jazz scene that really aren't getting enough attention. Hopefully that will change as time passes. My inspiration for putting together Brothers II was to get another CD on the shelves around the country that features my working band, rather than musicians that live in New York. Brothers, our first release for Summit Records, featured Kenny Werner, Scott Colley, and Scott Neumann. Brothers was recorded in Brooklyn, and the rhythm section did a remarkable job, having had little or no rehearsal time on the tunes. I believe that the biggest difference in Brothers and the follow-up, Brothers II, is that the new CD has the unmistakable sound of a band, rather than of a "session." The rhythm section on Brothers II are three of the finest musicians I've ever worked with, and lucky for me they live in Birmingham, Alabama!
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Could you share something about the musicians involved in BROTHERS II?
KEN WATTERS: Harry Watters is one of the very best trombonists on the scene today. I'm not just saying that because he's my brother, either! Ask any professional jazz trombonist out there, and they'll tell you. His reputation goes far and wide. Pianist David Marlow is conservatory trained, and his impeccable technique reflects this. But the truly amazing things apparent in his playing are not things that music conservatories teach -- his improvisational ideas, his sense of space and time, and his ability to bring out a distinct voice on an instrument that is extremely difficult to have an individual "voice" on. There are, to me, only a few pianists in the world that possess this unique quality in their playing. Roy Yarbrough is one of the most solid and steadfast jazz bassists on the scene today. He knows literally thousands of tunes, is a wonderfully selfless accompanist, and is the top call upright player in the area. Roy is also an exceptional soloist. He doesn't solo that often (he prefers to hold down his role as an accompanist), but when he does solo, he plays new tunes, not solos. Any one of his solos could be transcribed and put straight into The Real Book. Extremely melodic. Drummer / percussionist Jay Frederick was only 23 years old when Brothers II was recorded. His playing shows maturity well beyond his years. He is an extremely bold colorist, but always "takes care of business" as far as time and groove go. His heroes range from Philly Joe Jones to Jack DeJohnette to Paul Motian. Tom Wolfe shows two completely different sides to his broad musical abilities on Brothers II -- very straight ahead playing (on "Out of Nowhere") and a solo on "Port-au-Prince" that cuts so loose that it'll knock your socks off! Pianist John Miller lives in my hometown of Huntsville, and is a walking encyclopedia of jazz standards. On this recording his abilities are well demonstrated. One of the best qualities of Brothers II is that we are not only bandmates, we are best friends. I believe that this love and trust for each other come across on the recording.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What is your background in music, what are your jazz roots and jazz influences?
KEN WATTERS: I have a fairly broad musical background. Like most other jazz trumpet players around today, I started at age 12 in school bands playing classical music. I started playing jazz (or trying to play jazz) in the 9th grade. One day when we got home from school, my brother Harry had apparently had it with my inability to swing, so he made me "cop" a Blue Mitchell solo from a Louis Bellson album. I believe it was his solo on Don Menza's "Groove Blues." Harry told me that he wanted me to play along with it until he couldn't tell if I was playing or not. He wanted it stylistically perfect, and I still tell students to start with Blue Mitchell if they really want to learn "perfect" swing feel. Now my jazz influences are much more broad, and my favorite trumpet players are Tim Hagans, Greg Gisbert, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Lester Bowie, Scott Wendholt, Art Farmer, Louis Armstrong, Bix, Don Cherry, and the list can go on and on. I'm also an enormous Chris Potter fan. I should also say that one of my favorite "new" recordings is timeless tales (for changing times) by Joshua Redman.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Share with us some of the life experiences that have shaped you as a musician/composer.
KEN WATTERS: At age 24, I moved to New York City to attend Manhattan School of Music (that was my "excuse" for moving to NYC). I had previously attended North Texas for three years, but never finished. 7 months after moving to NYC, I was offered a full-time gig with Haitian band Tabou Combo. They are not well known in the US, but they are one of the most popular world-music bands out there. We would often play to packed stadiums when we left the US. That gig really taught me how to be a professional. The notes absolutely had to be there, no matter how I felt, or how tired I was. Being in the band showed me the world, too. However, during my years in New York I became an alcoholic and heavy cocaine user. So, I eventually decided that I absolutely had to leave the city (for just a little while, I thought) if I was going to live to see 35. My "way out" was to take a job playing aboard a cruise ship. That can be compared to being on a diet and taking a job at Dairy Queen! This was when I hit bottom. After a little over a year of cruise work, I returned to Huntsville, Alabama where my father, Harry Watters, Sr. helped me to get into recovery. Being in recovery (17 years sober) himself, he knew the signs, and he knew the way out. I've been sober for 3 1/2 years now, and this has been the best period of my personal and professional life. I married a wonderful woman (Pamela Daugherty Watters) who is a professional pastel artist, and a few years ago I got back into playing jazz. This was around the time that Brothers was released on Summit Records. Sobriety brings a whole new light to everything that I'm involved with. It's extremely difficult for the first year or so to get "motivated" to compose, or really just get up in the morning. But, there's light at the end of that tunnel. Eventually I got my creative motivation back, and now it's not being brought on by artificial means.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Share with us some of your favorite composers, past and present.
KEN WATTERS: My influences as a composer are mostly melody-oriented writers. I like organic sounding tunes -- music that sounds as if it was already there (somewhere), and the composer was merely the channel through which the music was put onto paper. Not to sound too "new agey" or anything, but I really think there's something to that. I know that personally, my best tunes were written in less than two minutes. Writing-wise, I'm really into Lennon / McCartney, Wayne Shorter, Jim Croce, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Kenny Wheeler, Joni Mitchell, Joe Henderson, Jobim, Carole King, Chris Potter, Led Zeppelin, Pat Metheny, and Willie Nelson. There are many more, but these are the ones that stand out at this moment.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: You have a remarkable playing style. You project beautifully a wide range of emotion in your playing! How do you achieve such accurate, classic jazz phrasing with your trumpet?
KEN WATTERS: Thank you! That's a great compliment, because that's exactly what I'm always going for. Emotion! One of the keys to playing what you hear / feel is technique. This cannot be stressed enough. Technique is not the goal, either -- it is the means to the goal. The better technique a player has, the less of a "gap" there is between their brain and what comes out the bell of their horn (or out of their drums, voice, keyboard, etc). On trumpet, I believe that every serious jazz player has to go through at least a year of absolute immersion in Clifford Brown. He will teach you about sound (beautiful in all registers), technique (both fast and slow), swing feel, outlining chords changes, and articulation. I'm also a great believer in imitating singers. And not just jazz singers, either. All singers. After all, this IS our goal, right? To "sing" through our instrument. If you need an example of this, just check out Trane's playing on "In A Sentimental Mood" from the CD Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: At what point in your life did you know you would become a jazz trumpet performer? What were the circumstances?
KEN WATTERS: I knew that I wanted to be a jazz trumpeter since I was in the 10th grade. Around that time, something clicked inside and I knew that I could never be completely happy doing anything else. Part of it was undoubtedly the fact that I was never really good at anything else. Some kids stand out in sports, some in academics, and some just stand out socially when they're in their early school years. I didn't really stand out at anything until I became a better-than-average trumpet player for my age. Then I felt as though I had found my "niche." As the years went on and I became older, I genuinely grew to love jazz music. I also got out of the "Maynard phase" pretty quickly once I heard Keith Jarrett play a tune called "Still Life, Still Life" from the For t Yawuh album. His improvised intro is breathtakingly gorgeous, and it changed my life.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What do you see as major changes in straight ahead and contemporary jazz?
KEN WATTERS: I think in the straight ahead jazz world, there now seems to be a resurgence of the 1960s' approach, and to me this is a good thing. The way the bass is recorded (for instance) has definitely taken a turn in the right direction, and people are really writing some interesting tunes. As far as "contemporary jazz," I think that the jazz fusion of the 1970s has taken a dramatic nosedive from where it began. To have a CD on the "smooth jazz" charts, you don't even have to be able to play well these days. A lot of the smooth jazz nowadays sounds more like "muzak" than real music! Plus, I hear more and more "smooth jazz" covers of older R & B classics, and personally I'd much rather hear the real version, rather than the exact same arrangements with a sax on the melody rather than the original singer.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What is your definition of Southern Jazz?
KEN WATTERS: Really, I don't know that there is a thing called "southern jazz." That's just a term I made up for what we do in a way. I do feel that a lot of my tunes have a "countrified" feel to them somehow, and I'm quite sure that it's because I grew up in the South. Hopefully the success of Brothers II and guitarist Tom Wolfe's new CD Simple Peace can help to put the South on the "jazz map." There are so many wonderful jazz musicians living in the South that I cannot possibly name them all. A few (just in our area) are Tom Wolfe (guitar), Steve Motz (saxophones), Rick Bell (saxophones), Bill Anschell (piano), Gary Motley (piano), Gary Wheat (saxophones), Bo Berry (trumpet), Tommy Stewart (trumpet, piano), Robert "Dig" Dickson (bass), Donny Davis (drums), Mark Kimbrell (guitar), Cleveland Eaton (bass), Devere Pride (bass), and countless others.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: When you compose, what is your process? How do you go about it? For instance, in your musical compositions, "Port-au-Prince" and "Judy Rebecca"?
KEN WATTERS: For all of my tunes, the melody is the first to come, then the chord changes. If a tune I write doesn't have an organic sounding melody, then I scrap it. I find that it's easier to come up with an organic, natural sounding melody when I'm away from a musical instrument. Like in the car, for instance. I had been hearing the melody to "Judy Rebecca" for quite some time before making it into a tune. The only problem was that I was hearing a country band play it rather than a jazz band! So when I finally wrote it out, I threw some wrenches in the machine (chordally) to make it a bit more of a jazz tune. "Port-au-Prince" was inspired by my years in the Haitian scene. I've been to Haiti more times that I can count, really, and on a few of those trips I attended actual Voodoo ceremonies in the hills surrounding the capital city of Port-au-Prince. I've also played in several "RaRa" (Voodoo music) bands, and I love the music. What the band did on that particular tune (rhythmically) very closely resembles an actual RaRa groove. A lot of percussion over a semi-ambiguous tonality. The upright bass is used as a percussion instrument as much as the drums are. When "Port-au-Prince" breaks into the swing section, Harry plays a truly amazing trombone solo over one of the most hard-swinging rhythm sections I've ever heard. I wanted to name "Port-au-Prince" "Dechukaj," but that may have prevented it from receiving airplay. DJs generally like to be able to pronounce and know what the song title refers to. The Haitian Dechukaj refers to the day that "Baby Doc" Duvallier was forced to leave Haiti, and the Haitian citizens uprose and burned down the homes of the Ton Ton Macoutes (J. C. Duvallier's brutal "private police force"). I tried to convey some of that raw energy and emotion when I wrote "Port-au-Prince."
JAZZREVIEW.COM: One of the most beautiful musical compositions on BROTHERS II is your song, "Sommerset Road." Please share with the jazz audience how it came to be.
KEN WATTERS: 22 months ago, my father was diagnosed with a particularly fatal form of lung cancer. Harry Watters Sr. passed away a few months ago, on July 14, 2000. One of the tunes, "Sommerset Road" on Brothers II was written for him while he was sick but still with us. In fact, he was actually AT the recording studio when we laid that track down. I believe that there is something of an extra "spark" of feeling on that particular tune. I'm still not to the point of being able to play it at gigs again yet, but the day will come. He was an extraordinary person and an extraordinary Dad. The tune itself is really quite simple. The most technically difficult part is that of the trombone. Harry is in the stratosphere on the melody and harmony, and as always, he does an impeccably clean and sensitive job.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What are your future recording plans?
KEN WATTERS: We work between three and five nights per week around the region as Ken Watters Group, a quartet made up of David Marlow (piano), Roy Yarbrough (bass), Jay Frederick (drums), and myself on flugelhorn and trumpet. With Harry living in Washington, DC (in The Army Blues big band) it is extremely difficult to gig with him. His Army leave time is quite limited, so we can really only play together a few times per year. Our next recording, most likely for Summit, will be a Ken Watters Group CD entitled Southern Exposure. Among other originals, it will feature some "real" jazz versions of classic southern rock songs. Johnny Sandlin (best known for his work as producer for The Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Dixie Dregs, Aquarium Rescue Unit, and many other southern rock giants) IS our producer. He will remain our producer as long as we are making CDs. He is a true artist behind the mixing board, and he makes us feel extremely relaxed and at home during sessions. Johnny is also one of the nicest people you would ever meet, especially in light of his reputation in the music industry as being a living legend. Brothers II is the first straight ahead jazz CD that he has ever recorded and produced, and he is very proud of the fact that it has been in the top 50 on the US jazz charts for three weeks now. I truly cannot say enough for him as a producer and as a person. He has a heart of pure gold. Johnny's approach is slightly different from that of other producers as well, in that he usually feels that the first take on a tune is the best, mistakes and all. He tends to go for feeling rather than perfection. There will very likely be future Brothers CDs as well, but our next release will be a quartet recording. Summit Records has been very good to us. The label President, Darby Christenson is a wonderfully supportive and accessible person, and has given us his complete trust on both Brothers CDs. For people who have dealt with record labels, you know how uncommon a thing that is. Summit's website is www.summitrecords.com.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Ken Watters, it has been a pleasure visiting with you! Is there anything else you would like to share with the jazz listeners and jazz readers who enjoy your excellent trumpet performances?