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Young Man With A Horn: Ken Watters, Jazz Trumpeter Extraordinaire

"Ken Watters is one of the finest young trumpet players to come along in a very long while. 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!" wrote Lee Prosser in Jazz Review in 1999 following the release of Brothers, the debut album by Ken and his wonderfully talented brother, trombonist Harry Watters.

In the past eleven years Ken has recorded four additional albums. The latest album entitled RIYEL (Summit Records, April 2010) is a eclectic blend of Caribbean Kreyol and American Jazz and is quite a departure from Ken's previous works. RIYEL, which is the name of the group as well as the album, performs Haitian-inspired, improvised, challenging, and original jazz. The band's mission is to effectively combine real Haitian / French Caribbean styles with equally authentic and undiluted American jazz, resulting in a unique marriage of the two genres.

Following the success of Brothers, Ken and Harry went on to record Brothers II and Brothers III. Between Brothers II and III, Ken stepped out on his own, sans Harry, and released Southern Exposure, This album, performed by the Ken Watters Group, received glowing reviews. One reviewer said, "Southern Exposure accelerates Ken Watters' vision on Brothers and Brothers II into hyperspace, exploring more daring standards territory while showing Watters to be expanding his compositional horizon."  Lee Prosser also wrote about Southern Exposure saying "Ken Watters just gets better & better & better with everything he composes and performs." All of the albums recorded by Ken Watters have climbed to the Top Fifty on the jazz charts

I have known about Ken and his brother Harry for most of their adult lives. Through my work with WLRH Public Radio, 89.3 FM in Huntsville, Alabama, I became friends with Ken's amazing mother, Judy Humphrey Watters, and his wonderful father, Harry, who died of cancer in 2000. Judy did much to nurture me as a writer by inviting me regularly to read my essays on Sundial Writer's Corner. (photo of Harry and Ken)

Ken Watters dreamed of becoming a musician from the time he was in the ninth grade. His grandfather, who was a professional saxophonist and to whom Brothers is dedicated, encouraged the boys in their musical pursuits. Ken credits author James Michener with helping to kick start his musical career. Ken said  Michener came for breakfast at their home while he was in Huntsville doing research for his book Space. The writer told Ken's father that the boys would never be happy unless they were allowed to follow their hearts.

Ken received his formal training at Interlochen Arts Academy, University of North Texas, The Banff Centre in Canada and Manhattan School of music. He studied privately with Wynton Marsalis and has played with such music icons as Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, Gregg Allman, Herbie Mann, Eartha Kitt, Harry Connick, Jr and a host of others. Ken, who is both a free lance trumpeter and a composer, has performed all over the world.

As a studio musician, Ken has worked in numerous cities, including Muscle Shoals. He shared with me the following information about Decatur, Alabama, record producer Johnny Sandlin . He told me that Johnny Sandlin had produced his first four CDs. Brothers (1999) was recorded in Brooklyn, but then mixed in Decatur by Johnny. The next three CDs (Brothers II, Brothers III and Southern Exposure) were totally done --recorded, mixed and produced by Johnny Sandlin. Ken says of Johnny: "What great ears for getting the best possible sounds from acoustic instruments! For the three CDs that we actually recorded a tDuck Tape Studio (Johnny Sandlin's converted garage, basically), we had to have grand pianos moved in! Johnny knew just how to mic both them and the upright bass -- not an easy thing for a studio engineer to do well!" (photo of Ken)

Regarding jazz in the south Ken told an interviewer, "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."

Prior to releasing RIYEL this spring, Ken worked with Haitian born and internationally acclaimed musician Wyclef Jean on his soon-to-be-released CD. Ken also appeared with Clef, as he is affectionately called, on the NAACP Awards show this past February. Wyclef Jean had hoped to be a candidate for the presidency of Haiti, but this week he was ruled ineligible. We can all hope that Clef will continue to be an ambassador for music and for world peace.

Ken is currently living in the lovely resort town of Mentone in northwest Alabama with his artist wife Pamela. I like to refer to them as the "dynamic duo."  Pamela, who is a visual artist, has recently set herself the challenging task of painting a picture a day for 365 days. At last count I believe she was on painting number 51. Pamela's landscapes reflect her love of the lush surroundings found in the Southeast. Whether the subject matter is figurative, still life or landscape, she captures excitement in her work by combining techniques of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists with outrageous colors of the Fauves. In each painting she projects a feeling of shimmering light, movement and explosive colors that captures the imagination of the viewer. Pamela's dramatic landscape painting graces the cover of Ken's Southern Exposure album.

Prior to their moving to Mentone, Alabama, Ken lived in New York City and also in the Atlanta area. However, both Ken and Pamela have ties with New Orleans, and they love traveling to that jazz friendly city. They are both looking forward to Ken's playing in the 2011 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival next spring.

I had the great pleasure of hearing Ken play during the 2010  W.C. Handy Jazz Festival in Florence, Alabama this past month. It is such a treat to have him back in North Alabama. You can follow his busy schedule on both his web site , his Facebook page, and his MySpace page---and don't miss the review of RIYEL on Swampland.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

Related Links
Hot Haitian Jazz and A Cool New Album

Review of RIYEL

Gritz Interview With Johnny Sandlin

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