An Interview With Ken Watters

AAJ Staff By

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While I was in NYC, I worked regularly with a Haitian band called Tabou Combo. I think that I learned more about groove and ways to play with the time from that experience than anything else that I did.
Few debut recordings are capable of generating justifiable and genuine excitement amongst jazz enthusiasts. However, the collaborative release by Ken and Harry Watters, the suitably entitled Brothers (Summit Records), would appear to be one of those recordings.

Since it's release earlier this year, Brothers has drawn an unusual degree of attention from AAJ contributors. Unusual not only for the amount of coverage (four reviews, and a biographical sketch in the March edition) but also for the universally positive reception it has garnered (AAJ Publishers Pick of the Week for February 28, 1999 and a profile in the New Faces category for March 1999).

As an example, check out these quotes from the AAJ review staff:

"Ken and Harry Watters have rekindled spirits of years gone by with remarkable grace and craftsmanship—superb musicianship, sparkling treatments of Twentieth Century classics and exceptional original compositions mark this outing as an early top 10 contender. These pieces are fresh, contemporary sounding and aurally stimulating. Highly Recommended." ~ Glenn Astarita

"The Summit Records jazz catalog isn't large, but it offers nothing but the very best—this is the Watters Brothers first recording together, and comes highly recommended." ~ Jim Santella

"The brothers complement one another well, so much so that one might assume they'd been together all their lives. Actually, Ken and Harry parted company after studying at North Texas State, and this is the first time they've teamed up on record. They should do so more often—they are seasoned players who've fashioned an engaging family reunion that is worth attending." ~ Jack Bowers

"Both of the Watters brothers are technically accomplished musicians, and they share a talent for smooth, flowing solos with little bluster—the jazz family has a welcome new addition in the Watters brothers of Huntsville, Alabama." ~ Joel Roberts

Given these accolades, further elaboration is redundant.

AAJ is pleased to present an interview with trumpeter Ken Watters, described as the post-bop modernist of the pair (trombonist Harry is the traditionalist, rooted in Dixieland).

All About Jazz: Just for the record, who's older, you or Harry? (I'm guessing Harry.)

Ken Watters: Harry is about two years older than me. We both went to North Texas State at the same time before going our separate ways (Harry to New Orleans, and me to New York). Professionally, I was doing quite well in NYC, but on a more personal level I was developing some insurmountable problems. I came back to Alabama about 3 years ago to "clean up my act," so to speak, with every intention of going straight back to New York. Then Harry and I decided to finally do this project together, and my sobriety made it possible. I met my wife, and consequently stayed in Alabama. I've been clean & sober for more than two years now.

AAJ: You've dedicated Brothers to your grandfather, saxophonist Frank Humphrey, citing him as an inspiration to you and your brother. Would you please elaborate on this (e.g., did he play records for you? Talk to you about jazz? Give you musical training? All of the preceding?) and also tell AAJ a little more about him?

KW: My granddad lived in Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania, and played music professionally in that area. He worked with all kinds of ensembles, from small to large (big band was really his first love). He would make us practice as many hours a day as we could, which meant maybe one hour, but was very warmhearted and encouraging. He also had a large library of Dixieland sheet music, and would assign certain tunes for us not only learn to read, but to memorize. He would never let us stop a tune in the middle or change tempos. Once we started playing a tune, we had to finish it.

He was at as many of our concerts through our growing up years as he could attend until the end of his life, and he was always the first one applauding wildly at the end of every song.

AAJ: When did you decide to become a professional musician?

KW: In the 9th grade, I guess. From that point on, I never even considered going into anything else. My dad was an aerospace engineer at NASA, so needless to say, although he was quite supportive of our love of music, he wasn't thrilled about either Harry or me going into music as a career. Luckily, James Michener (the author) came to breakfast at our house one day while he was in Huntsville doing research for his book "space." He told Dad that he must be very proud of our musical accomplishments, and Dad voiced his concerns over our career choices. Michener told him that we would never be happy unless we were allowed to "follow our hearts." After that, Dad was always very supportive of us making music our careers.

AAJ: You've worked with and for a diverse assemblage of musicians. From whom have you learned the most and what is it that you've learned?

KW: While I was in NYC, I worked regularly with a Haitian band called Tabou Combo. I think that I learned more about groove and ways to play with the time from that experience than anything else that I did. The tenor player was Ned Goold, whose sense of time was impeccable. I grew more as a professional musician during that time period than I did at Interlochen, North Texas, Banff, or Manhattan School of Music.

AAJ: You cite trumpeters Woody Shaw and Tim Hagans as influences. But what non-trumpeters have influenced you? How and why have they influenced you?

KW: Paul McCandless (his sense of melody on improvised solos), Bill Watrous (his effortless sounding technique at all tempos and his beautiful sound), Monk (his imagination, creativity, and compositions), Charlie Mariano (his ability to really work many different moods), Pat Metheny (mainly his natural sounding composition style), Wayne Shorter (also, his writing style and his soulful ballad playing), Vernon Reid (his off-the-wall approach to solos), Rickie Lee Jones (her phrasing and writing, especially on her NON hit songs), Curtis Fuller (his flawless sense of time and groove), Dexter Gordon (his comprehensive approach to soloing)

AAJ: What's the funniest or most embarrassing thing that's happened to you while performing or recording?

KW: While on tour with Haitian band Tabou Combo, the audience liked what we were doing so much that they tear-gassed the stage. When that happens, you really know that you've won them over.

Also, on the same tour, we were fed by a promoter who was very proud of the band. I am a great lover of "lambi" or conch meat, and that's what I thought we were eating until one of the band members told me that we were eating "begga." It's apparently a great honor to be served "begga" in Haiti.

I asked what "begga" was, and he said 'dick cow." While I felt honored to have been served this delicacy, I couldn't find it in my stomach to eat any more. I was more than a little queasy for the rest of the gig.

AAJ: How's the jazz scene in Huntsville, AL? Are there any local musicians that AAJ should watch for in the future?

KW: For a Southern town in Alabama, it's amazing, but there actually is a small scene and some good players. There's a wonderful young saxophonist from Huntsville named Gary Wheat, who'll be moving to NYC in the next year or so. Also, one of the staples of the local jazz scene here is Devere Pride, a very solid bassist.

AAJ: Will you please describe your other bands, 5.6 and the Ken Watters/Devere Pride Quintet?

KW: 5.6 is more of a club / wedding type band that plays rock covers, and is made up of a bunch of my long time friends. It's more of a fun thing than a serious band.

The Ken Watters/Devere Pride Quintet is a very straight-ahead post bop quintet that has a regular weekly gig here at the Hilton every Saturday night.

I am mainly a freelance trumpeter, though. I play and record with many different bands throughout the Southeast. Lately I have been playing with some top notch jazz musicians in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham (Alabama Jazz All Stars led by Mark Lanter with Tom Wolfe, one of the finest guitarists I have ever worked with, and The Sam Kennedy Band). Needless to say, I spend a lot of time in my car.

AAJ: What can AAJ readers anticipate from Ken Watters in 1999-2000?

KW: Another CD with Harry in the next year or so, with more original compositions included. Also, a good bit of touring to promote the Brothers CD. Some of these gigs will include Scott Neumann on drums, an old friend and a great drummer from NYC.

AAJ: Glenn Astarita tells me that you're relocating to New Orleans. When will this occur? What prompts this move? What can listeners hope for as a consequence?

KW: It's difficult to make it in North Alabama in the field that I'm in. My wife is a visual artist and already has professional ties to New Orleans. Personally, I'd rather move back to New York, but I married a Southern girl.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I was pleasantly surprised to find a thriving modern jazz scene (rather than Dixieland only), and I hope to immerse myself in the WHOLE scene. It's a wonderfully diverse city for the arts. Hopefully living there will present more opportunities to play, grow, and record.

AAJ: What musicians would you most like to work with that you've never worked with before?

KW: Keith Jarrett (I've been a big fan since I was in high school), Pat Metheny (I love his concept), and I'd love to work with some members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (although Lester Bowie is irreplaceable).

AAJ: What recordings by other musicians have you heard lately that have excited you?

KW: I was really impressed with the debut CD by saxophonist Joel Frahm (Sorry, No Decaf) on the Palmetto label. Joel was my roommate for a while in NYC, and because of that, I know how good he is. His CD shows him off well. Great tunes and great playing by everyone on the recording.

I'm also a big Chris Potter fan. I love all of his CDs, including his latest. That guy writes and plays his butt off.

AAJ: Have you heard Tim Hagans latest CD Animation/Imagination (the drum and bass one)? If so, would you care to comment?

KW: I've heard only snippets of that CD, and what I heard was really intriguing. It's definitely a new direction for him. In my opinion, Tim Hagans can do no wrong, and is the most harmonically advanced trumpeter out there today.

To some, he may seem to be more of an "outside" player, but when you actually sit down and analyze what he's doing, you will find that every note he plays relates to the harmony of the chord changes in some way. He knows EXACTLY what he's doing, and to me, he's taken what Woody Shaw was doing in his prime and built upon it.

AAJ: You've appeared on over 25 recordings. Would you please provide AAJ with a discography?

KW: That's a tough one, because most of the CDs that I am on are not available in the US, and I have only a handful myself. Most that I am on are French Caribbean.

I am on 5 Tabou Combo CDs and many other French Caribbean bands' CDs (including one by Kassava), a compilation CD called Her Place that includes Widespread Panic, Dan Penn, Delbert McClinton, and others, a blues/R&B group The Snake Doctors, drummer Roger Hawkins' CD, and many gospel recordings. I also do some recording as a part of the Muscle Shoals Horns.

The actual number of recordings that I've been on is probably closer to 35, but it's hard for me to give specifics.

AAJ: To conclude, a purely hypothetical question: if you were to cook dinner for the staff of AAJ (or could take them to dinner) what would you serve (or where would you take them)?

KW: I would talk my wife into cooking some Southern cuisine, such as fried green tomatoes, cornbread and beans, pork chops, and pecan pie. A steady diet of this would kill you, but it's great every so often.

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