By Jonathan Widran
In 2005, in its review of Brian Culbertson’s soulful, romantic themed release It’s On Tonight, this column dubbed the popular keyboardist “the Barry White of smooth jazz.” Since he put aside sensuality and went all super funky on his decidedly jamming last album, the “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” designation defaults with great passion to one of the genre’s most consistently candlelit saxmen, Kim Waters.
Since the Maryland native signed with Shanachie ten years ago, his urban jazz excursions have found him exploring the loving side of town with such regularity that his album titles have almost become a mantra for the magic four letter word: Love's Melody (1998), One Special Moment (1999), From The Heart (2001) Someone to Love You (2002), In the Name of Love (2004), All For Love (2005) and You Are My Lady (2007). These discs have collectively spawned over 10 #1 hits, the titles of which keep the candlelight burning, starting with “Night Fall,” “Easy Going,” “Secrets Told” and “Until Dawn.”
Waters fans looking to groove before they make out have taken heart these past few years as he’s interspersed his solo projects by producing and performing on the label’s hip-hop oriented cover projects Streetwize and Tha’ Hot Club. He’s also been engaged in some deeper rhythm making with The Sax Pack - the triple threat recording and road ensemble with fellow genre icons Jeff Kashiwa and Steve Cole. The Pack hit the top of the Radio & Records’ airplay chart (and stayed at #1 for two months) in 2008 with “Fallin’ For You,” the kickoff single from their debut release.
Waters may enjoy funking out here and there, but his heart comes back home and mines the lovelorn R&B old school on his eighth Shanachie release I Want You – In The Spirit Of Marvin, which marks a dual celebration: two decades as a recording artist (he launched his career with eight releases on Warlock Records) and the ongoing influence of Motown great Marvin Gaye on his own musical sensibilities and that of the world. No doubt the concept grew out of the spirited reception he got for his 2007 cover of Gaye’s party anthem “Got To Give It Up.”
A lot of genre fans have been slightly fed up with the trend in recent years by core artists to secure easy airplay with cover songs. Waters stirs things up a bit to create a different kind of homage than Jason Miles fashioned on 2006’s What’s Going On? Instead of just saxifying Gaye’s greatest hits, he uses his silky take on the title track (which features the sensuous vocals of Vivian Green) and a richly emotional turn on “Distant Lover” as inspiration for nine originals that help bring Gaye’s vibe into the present tense.
“My dad was a major Marvin fanatic who would play his albums in the house, so when I was growing up, I was getting a steady dose of this along with the guys who became my jazz heroes like Cannonball, Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins,” says Waters. “I think the first tune I remember hearing was the granddaddy of all sexy songs, ‘Let’s Get It On,’ and I thought it would be cool to have a little fun with the title and call one of my new songs ‘Let’s Get On It,’ even if it’s a little more uptempo. It’s like the building passion leading to the first kiss and beyond it.
“What’s always struck me about Marvin’s songs and the reason they’re so timeless is pretty simple - melodies that stick out and won’t let you go,” he adds. “The idea that (Shanachie A&R Director) Danny Weiss and I had sprang from a single question: What would Marvin himself do if he were here now, in terms of melody and groove? Quite a challenge, but I did my own thing with his basic vibe, bringing in that crazy melodic flair he had and putting across the emotion of his vocals through my horns. That’s one advantage of doing a sax album in the spirit of a singer - it’s the one instrument that’s closest in sound to the human voice. But it wasn’t just about the tone of the saxes. I also tried to capture the incredibly detailed sounds that marked the atmosphere of his recordings. There was always so much happening behind him, subtle things that only came through with deeper listening.”
The Sax Pack’s “Fallin’ For You” was still in the Top Ten when I Want You was released, so it was likely that the first single “Take Me Away,” which mixes sizzling horn textures with a dreamscape of cool atmosphere, would compete with it on the radio charts. Waters gets joyful and optimistic on the opener “Groove With Me” and takes things sonically back to the 70s on the otherworldly, spaced out soul of “Cosmic Love,” the soothing “Come With Me” (time traveling is easier when you have a Fender Rhodes handy) and the snappy, shuffling “Some Dreams Come True,” whose jumpy clavinet makes the flow reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” And will the ride on the love train ever stop? Not with the ghost of Marvin doing the conducting—“She’s the One,” “Smooth Sailing” and “Thank You” are all vintage Waters.
For years, the saxman recorded at his home studio in Aberdeen, Maryland, but makes use of his full scale setup (Waterfall Studios) in his new home in Sacramento, where he relocated last year. He recorded all the backing tracks there and came to NYC to lay down the sax parts. “The coolest thing was walking into Bass Hit Recording and doing all these tracks in a single day, sometimes in only one take,” Waters says. “It was like, we’re here, let’s go, got it, let’s move on. I also loved doing so much at home first, because that always makes the process so much easier. Beyond that, it was such a privilege to explore Marvin’s legacy and pay tribute in my own way to what he’s meant to my life. Sure, the album is old school, but to me it sounds new and fresh and that’s what good urban jazz is about. My music’s always been about love, but I finally had a chance to express a different kind beyond the typical romantic thing.”
Although vets like The Sax Pack, Boney James and Dave Koz still dominate the airwaves and the contemporary jazz charts 10 to 20 years after they first appeared on the scene, the genre can’t ultimately survive without the occasional new promising saxophonist. Eldredge Jackson, who has become a regional attraction throughout Texas and his adopted home state of Oklahoma these past few years, isn’t paving wholly new ground on his jazz, R&B and gospel infused debut album, but that’s not the point. It’s enough that he’s a fresh voice on the national scene, a new and potentially exciting name on the marquee and dedicated on his debut to everyone’s Listening Pleasure. There are also friends in high (okay, tall) places that ensure he’s got the pedigree to compete. Beyond a few 80’s covers produced by Preston Glass, the core of the collection is a rich collaboration between Jackson and his fellow Tulsan, bassist Wayman Tisdale. It’s hardly the case of just a big name helping out the upstart. Jackson and Tisdale, who co-wrote and produced many of the tracks in Tisdale’s home studio The Bassmint, have been pals since middle school. In fact, one summer when Tisdale was between NBA seasons, he sat in with Jackson’s band at the local Greenwood Jazz Festival. And they share a common spiritual bond, which comes across passionately - and not just on the churchy tunes like “Sunday Morning @ 10am”. Their fathers were both pastors of major congregations that ran in the same local church circles. Another divine commonality: they are also both members of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Tisdale was inducted in 2002, Jackson in 2005.
1) Fourplay, Energy (Heads Up) – The renowned supergroup hit #1 on the Contemporary Jazz chart again with a dynamic label debut that marks Larry Carlton’s tenth year in the guitar chair. The catchy, easy flow of “Fortune Teller” snagged the radio attention, but the deeper treasures are the world music anthem “Cape Town” and “Prelude For Lovers” featuring labelmate Esperanza Spalding.
2) Frank Catalano, Bang! (Savoy Jazz)
3) Oli Silk, The Limit’s The Sky (Trippin N Rhythm)
4) Tim Bowman (Trippin N Rhythm)
5) Walter Beasley, Free Your Mind (Heads Up)