Kim Waters will be honoring an upcoming career anniversary with a mix of celebration and caution.
On the upbeat side is Silver Soul, an album the popular smooth jazz saxophonist will release Sept. 2 to mark 25 years as a recording artist. Early in his career, Waters never imagined achieving such a milestone.
"I never thought of it like that," says the Maryland-born artist, who will perform with vocalist Maysa and keyboardist Brian Simpson at the African American Forum's annual Smooth Jazz Fest at Transylvania University on Saturday. "When I first started, I would have been thrilled just being a musician who could make a living. But I'm very happy to have a successful career and be in the business for 25 years. This is a short-lived business for a lot of people, so I'm grateful in have been in it for this long."
Waters has been a favorite of pop and urban audiences that champion the R&B-leaning genre known as smooth jazz since his debut album, Sweet and Saxy, was released in 1989. Since then, he has charted 14 No. 1 hits and 16 Top 10 singles on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart and numerous multigenre listings.
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Growing up near the Baltimore area, Waters initially took up the violin as a means of musical expression. While all kinds of music abounded in his household, what he heard outside and in the streets was jazz.
"There were a lot of great players there," he said. "At that time in Baltimore, a great saxophone player by the name of Gary Bartz (whose credits include tenures with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and McCoy Tyner, among many others) lived there. Gary and I used to hang out and do stuff together there. A lot of great players from there were all helping each other out.
"In the early days, I really listened to more traditional stuff — guys like Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt," Waters says. "With the contemporary thing going on, I think the guy who really changed my mind was Grover Washington Jr. We became friends, and he really helped me a lot in my career — him and David Sanborn."
While the music on Silver Soul caters to the sleek, melodic flow of smooth jazz — from the instrumental single Dreaming of You, which features daughter Kayla Waters on piano, to the R&B-savvy Anything You Need, with vocals by wife Dana Pope, and a soprano sax-led cover of the John Legend hit All of Me, assisted by guest vocalist Zendaya — Waters isn't comfortable with the genre-labeling that has formed an often divisive gap between fans of soul-based instrumental music and those favoring more traditional jazz.
The theorizing in Waters' book is quite simple: jazz is jazz.
"I really don't care for the labels," the saxophonist says. "That's really the first thing that was done in this whole jazz scene — trying to put everything between the smooth and the traditional. A lot of the guys we discussed earlier (Washington, Sanborn and Bartz) can do both. I really feel that if the music is good, then they'll play it. Isn't that the way it usually happens?"
None of that, however, dilutes the sense of satisfaction Waters feels as his recording career turns 25. Active as a producer as well as bandleader, composer and instrumentalist, he looks forward to new hits, additional love from smooth jazz radio and a few more good years of making music.
"I've learned so much as a producer over the years," Waters says. "When it comes time to record, I really like to break the music down and take time to focus on what audiences like. And after all this time, I feel I know what they like."