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KIM WATERS 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
MAKING THE SAXOPHONE SING
Phone interview conducted October 19, 2011

For over 20 years, Kim Waters has taken the saxophone to new heights within the world of R&B. His soulful sounds helped create what we know today as "smooth jazz." Along with original compositions, his catalog includes saxed-up covers of some of R&B's greats, like Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin.

On the eve of his latest album release, “THIS HEART OF MINE,” Waters talks to Darnell Meyers-Johnson about his longevity, and reveals why the saxophone is his "voice" of choice...



Good day. This is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for soulmusic.com. Today I am speaking with a gentleman who is one of the pioneers of contemporary smooth jazz. His romantic stylings on the saxophone have been a mainstay on “quiet storm” formats since the late 1980s. He is about to release his new CD, “THIS HEART OF MINE.” Welcome to soulmusic.com, Mr. Kim Waters. How are you, sir?

Kim Waters: I am great, thanks.

DMJ: Great. I am glad that you are taking time out to speak with us. We do appreciate it.

KW: My pleasure, always.

DMJ: By the time this interview is published, your new album, THIS HEART OF MINE, is going to be out. You've done so many albums; I've lost count at about 16. Do you know which number this one is for you?

KW: I believe this is either seventeen or eighteen; I'm not sure.

DMJ: Ok, so I was pretty close, then. I didn’t fall back too far behind. When did your first one come out?

KW: Late 1988, I believe.

DMJ: You've been very prolific in your career. At one point in the ‘90s it seemed you were releasing albums almost every year. What do you attribute to your longevity?

KW: You know, I think the formula is pretty simple: just creating some music, and creating melodies that everyone can seem to relate to, and hum and sing along with. And that’s always been my philosophy--don’t get too deep with your melodies that people can't understand what you're doing. I just think, play something pretty that people can understand and relate to, and you have a chance of creating a fan and creating a hit as well.

DMJ: Your music is sometimes described as "smooth jazz," or "smooth urban jazz," like I said in the intro. Some people like that label; some people don’t. How do you feel about it?

KW: Well, you know, I think the whole labeling of music has its ups and downs. As I said, when I came out in the late ‘80s, there was no "smooth jazz". It was contemporary music and R&B. Myself and others had tremendous success on R&B radio. That's pretty much what broke our careers ... doing big tours with big artists. As instrumentalists, we got major exposure through R&B radio, and then "smooth jazz" came along, and kind of put a category that all this music had to go--I just don’t feel it’s necessary.

DMJ: I was going to wait until a little bit later to ask you this, but since you've already touched on it, as you just said, you came out before there were any "smooth jazz" formats on radio, and your music, from the very beginning, was kind of embraced by mainstream R&B stations. Why do you think they embraced you so early on in your career?

KW: I think that at that time there weren’t a whole lot of saxophone players. I can think of maybe a handful: myself, Kirk Whalum, Gerald Albright, Najee, of course the great Grover Washington Jr., Stanley Turrentine, and David Sanborn. We were the guys that were getting the R&B play. And radio embraced it because we would take great songs by great R&B singers and we covered them. And we had great originals as well. But R&B embraced that music and kind of really helped us along the way, and sold a lot of records for all of us at that time.

DMJ: Speaking of R&B, I spoke to one of the greats of today's R&B music a little while ago, Mr. Brian McKnight, and he told me that he would never record a jazz album, because there's going to be no more jazz in about 10 years. What is your feeling about the state of jazz today? Is it about to become extinct?

KW: I don’t think so. I think if you go back into the history of music in general, every 15 or 20 years we go through this whole thing--went through it with jazz twice in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and we went through a whole other thing again in the early ‘80s, and then "smooth jazz" erupted, and now "smooth jazz" is kind of slowing down. But I think good music will always find a place, and good music will always be there, so the fact that jazz will die, I just think that’s a little bit extreme. It's going to eventually come back again, full throttle, just as it has several times, and the truth shall survive.

DMJ: What about jazz purists, people who are into Miles Davis and Coltrane for example, do you think they've embraced your music?

KW: Oh absolutely, because if you come to the live shows you can definitely see that side in the live performance. I am not trying to do a straight ahead record, and record one--because lets face it, I'm in this business to sell records and right now, as much as I love straight ahead music, it’s not a big selling thing these days. So that’s always been my philosophy, to do a great record and get great radio play and records sales, and then when you do your live performance you can show everybody that you can play. I have no problem in getting up with anybody to play straight ahead playing--you know what I mean. I'm not worried about that part of it.

DMJ: I understand you started playing at a very early age, but the saxophone wasn’t your first instrument. What was your initial instrument of choice?

KW: My first instrument was the violin. I played that for, maybe, about a year, from 8 to 9. In the neighborhood, it didn’t go over well. I got teased quite a bit, and so I said I have to pick up a more manly instrument, and that’s how the saxophone came about.

DMJ: And at what age did you start with the sax?

KW: I think I was, maybe, 11 or 12.

DMJ: On your new album, I understand you play all the instruments, practically. How many instruments do you play?

KW: I do a lot of keyboards and bass, drum programming, but mainly keyboards, sax, and a little bit of guitar in there. This time I just took my time and stayed in the lab and worked it all out on my own, and just said, "Hey, I want to do a record that’s really, really, truly just Kim Waters," and I did that, you know.

DMJ: Which of these instruments do you think was the most difficult to learn?

KW: For me ... I don’t know, probably piano because I never really had any formal training, but I always had great guys around me, like Cyrus Chestnut and Bobby Lyle and people like that, that I could ask for pointers, and I'd just come home and practice and listen ... listen to the greats, like George Duke who's probably my biggest idol as a record producer. I learned a lot of stuff, and learned quite a bit from him, production wise. Of course, nobody can be him, but it's nice to have that type of music to listen to and learn.

DMJ: The thing I like about George Duke, and I had a great opportunity to speak with him last year, is even when you're not a musician and you talk to him, he seems to be such a teacher of music, even in casual conversation. So I would imagine, with you being a musician, you probably learned that much more.

KW: Oh, absolutely, and it's great to know guys like that. I had a chance to talk with him--I spoke with Herbie Hancock, just to get ideas. The thing that’s amazing about them is they are able to change and keep up to date with the time, and that’s why they are still here. The greats are able to change. That’s why Miles Davis lasted; that’s why George Benson and Herbie Hancock were able to sustain, because they didn’t just stay with their one style of music. They adjusted and adapted to what today's music is doing.

DMJ: On all of your albums, obviously, the main voice is the sax. Why did you decide to … particularly since you play other things, make the sax the main voice, if you will, of your albums?

KW: I think the saxophone is a very romantic instrument, and people love the saxophone, so I think that a saxophone has a unique way of speaking. It’s the closest to the human voice in its way of speaking. I think you can express yourself in more ways on a saxophone than any other instrument, besides being a voice.

DMJ: I am glad that you said that, because one of the earlier things I remember you doing was a cover of Mariah Carey's "Vision of love."

KW: Oh, yeah.

DMJ: And I am a lover of singers. I love listening to people sing, and something about when I heard that song and the sax on that song--it sounds to me like a person singing. It was that same kind of connection. Do you hear that a lot from fans?

KW: I do hear that, absolutely, and the saxophone is one that you can almost feel the same vibe as someone singing, and that’s what I try to tell a lot of the younger cats. I say, "Get your technique up and be able to play all the difficult runs and stuff for jazz, but when you speak for the music and for the melody, you have to really sing the song as if you're the singer." And I think people want to have the same feeling that they feel when someone is singing a song as when you are playing them a song on the sax.

DMJ: As I was just talking about the Mariah Carey thing--I know a couple of years ago you did a tribute album to Marvin Gaye, and on almost all of your albums you've done some sort of cover of a contemporary song of the day. I know you did Anita Baker and Donell Jones at various points. How do you decide which song you're going to cover?

KW: On most CDs I usually pick one or two, maybe, of the hottest songs of that year, and I try to cover that. Like this year, I did the Alicia Keys "Empire state of mind" and I did the R. Kelly "Love letter" song. I like both of those tunes. And I also listen to the melody to see if it fits the saxophone, so a lot of songs are great songs, but it’s not a saxophone song.

DMJ: Actually, I was going to ask you why you chose the R. Kelly and Alicia Keys tunes this time around?

KW: I just like the melody of it. I think you can play it like they sing it. I could hum it and sing it just like they are singing it.

DMJ Speaking of singers, as we were a moment ago, I also know from your career that you've done some collaborations with some amazing vocalists. Who were, or are some of your favorites that you like to work with?

KW: Well, firstly on this CD, it was my first time working with Calvin Richardson. He totally blew me away. He's very soulful; he's extremely professional, and it was just a great collaboration, and he's definitely one of the greats. And I've been touring for the past two or three years with Kenny Lattimore, who is one of my favorites, and not just because we work together, but he's truly a gifted vocalist. And one of my favorites, as a female, someone who I also work with quite a bit, is Maysa. She is one of the most soulful, and her voice is one of the most identifiable voices in the business. Once you hear her, you know that’s Maysa. There’s no discrepancy, you know.

DMJ: I was going to ask you about her, because, hopefully, if all things go well, I'll be speaking with her in a couple of days about her new album. Let's go into the new album a little bit. Tell me some of the highlights of it, and if it differs in any way from your previous efforts.

KW: I think this one, maybe, has a little more of an R&B vibe. The first "smooth jazz " single is called "Free fall," and it’s kind of like a hip, funky, housey tune. It's going very well; radio loves it, and, of course, the R&B song is called "Am I A Fool," and that features Calvin Richardson, and we did a great video, which I think is coming out this week some time, so look for that. The rest of the CD just got the Kim Waters vibe, you know. I just played music … hope that the people feel good about it, and as long as they are happy, I'm happy.

DMJ: Now your music seems to be all about romance, even down to some of the album covers and the image that you put out there. Are you a romantic dude in your personal life?

KW: I would say so, in some sense. I'm very connected with my family. Every one of my CDs is dedicated to my twin daughters, Kayla and Kimberly, and I have a big heart, and I like to see happy people all the time so … I don’t know if I'm a great big romantic, but I have a big heart. (Laughs)

DMJ: That’s fair enough. I also understand that you have your own signature saxophones out.

KW: Yeah, it's called the “Kim Waters Signature Saxophone.” It’s a curved soprano; its silver, and it’s a beautiful instrument, and it’s a beautiful sounding saxophone.

DMJ: And how can people find out more about that?

KW: If they go to my Website, Kimwaters.net, and just click on the link, and it will say "music factory" and it will come right to my signature saxophone.

DMJ: Lastly, as we wrap up. I want to ask you, not necessarily how you look back on your career, but how do you want others to look back on your career at the point where, God forbid, you are not around? What do hope your legacy is going to be, in terms of your music?

KW: I think the legacy is definitely strong melodies and songs that people can really remember and identify with you. Musically, I'm still growing, and hopefully I will continue to grow year after year and become better and better. I mean, this is one business that you never get comfortable in. I'm still trying to learn just like everybody else.

DMJ: I know you are out there performing. I assume you are, because you always seem to be part of something.

KW: Yes. I've been touring pretty much all year, and just did the Phoenix Jazz Festival last week, and I'm heading to Boston, Massachusetts, tomorrow to perform two nights at the Scullers Jazz Club.

DMJ: With social media being so popular right now, I can't let you go without asking you if you are on Facebook, Twitter, any of those things? I know you just mentioned your Website.

KW: Yes, nowadays I think it’s a necessity to be out there and connecting with people, and try to cover up for the lack of radio that’s not there now. So we have to really do all we can to stay connected with our fans, and let them know what's going on and what we're doing and where we're at, and so it's definitely a need.

DMJ: So I guess folks can just do a name search for you on Facebook. Do you also have Twitter?

KW: I have Twitter @therealKimWaters.

DMJ: The real one, right? Well, Mr. Waters, I appreciate your time. Is there anything you want to mention that we haven’t talked about?

KW: No, just that the record comes out October 25th, and fans, pick it up. You will love it, and I appreciate everyone's support for over all of these years. Thank you so much.

DMJ: No doubt, no doubt. Thank you so much for your time, and our doors at SoulMusic.com are always open, anytime you want to come through and let us know what you're doing.

KW: Appreciate it. Thanks for your time.

DMJ: All right, sir. Be easy.


About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.
  
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