Smooth Waters

For contemporary jazz artist Kim Waters, calm, cool and collected reflects not only his music, but also his way of life.

May 30, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

On the cover of his latest jazz record, "From the Heart," Kim Waters is a portrait in cool: contemporary black T-shirt, natty mustache, vapor trail of a smile. He looks as though he could mow his yard in silk pajamas and not splash grass on himself.

Waters is the Phil Jackson of contemporary jazz. When Waters was left stranded in a Florida hotel this year and missed most of a gig, he stayed cool. When Waters dropped his signature white-coated saxophone in Norfolk - the equivalent of Shaq fouling out of a Lakers game - Waters kept his cool. He called his wife at their Aberdeen home and broke the news. His saxophone, their third child, had been hurt in a fall.

"That did raise his eyebrows," Penny Waters says.

Raised eyebrows! As far as musician horror stories go, that's the scariest it gets for Kim Waters. No drug rehab. No cracking up his Mercedes, although he does race it a bit and, like any true man, never stops to ask for directions. No suing crooked managers. Waters would make a lousy subject for VH1's "Behind the Music."

Well-known jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb says what you hear in Waters' music is what you get in person.

"People get a sense of beauty, relaxation and inner peace from him," says Loeb, who has been known to call his longtime friend and collaborator "Mr. Waters."

Mr. Waters has been called many things in his life - the life of a Churchville country boy who went from admiring Lawrence Welk's sax players and the late Baltimore saxophonist Mickey Fields to becoming a 36-year-old family man with 12 albums to his name, including "From the Heart," which was recently No. 5 on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart.

Waters has played with the likes of Isaac Hayes and Bob James, and one night in Fells Point, he broke out his sax and played "Sweet Home Alabama."

Now that's cool.

The force is with him

Old Philadelphia Road in Harford County isn't home to many jazz artists whose records consistently make Billboard's Top 10. In fact, Old Philadelphia Road claims only one musician whose record label shamelessly beams, "He's sexy not only in his ability to melt the ladies' hearts on stage, but also in his sultry approach to rhythm and melody."

In Waters' Waterfall Studios in Aberdeen, W's are pinned over portraits of his wife of nearly 13 years, Penny Waters, and their 10-year-old twin daughters, Kayla and Kimberly. A CD doesn't go by without dad dedicating it to his musical and basketball-playing daughters. A Career Day doesn't go by in their elementary school where his daughters don't recruit him to play. Firefighters and jazz musicians: Pity the dads who follow those acts.

The W's honor Waters' basketball career as a Mustang at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air. Waters, an honors student and sax soloist at school assemblies, lettered in basketball in the early 1980s. "I was a shooting guard," Waters says. No memories exist of the young man passing the ball.

"He was a terrific shooter," says his old varsity coach Ken Dawson, now retired. "Some of the kids used to call him Luke Skywalker because he floated a little when he shot. He was a real crowd pleaser."

To no one's shock, Dawson remembers Waters as a calm, quiet, laid-back young man. The coach's only regret, lo these many years later, is that Harford County basketball didn't have a three-point line then. All of Waters' baskets just went for two, which was too little sometimes for the .500 Mustangs. Dawson is left with dreams of Waters' three-pointers. "We might have had a better record."

Nearly 20 years later, the shooting guard is having a full-sized basketball court built at the Aberdeen "compound," which consists of the family home, recording studio, gazebo and perhaps the coolest toy a guy could have - a lounge. His handyman father-in-law, Frank Mayo, helped build the bar. Here, musicians and family (Waters has five brothers and two sisters) come to chill, play the two slot machines, punch up the free jukebox (stacked with Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, B.B. King) and drink beer or Crown Royal.

"We take turns tending bar," Waters says.

Half the week, Waters is on the road playing maybe 150 dates a year at about every jazz festival you could name. He makes a record about every 18 months, which doesn't leave him a lot of down time. But what time he has, he spends with his family. He's a stickler when it comes to his daughters' homework and often stands at the family easel going over their math. Not often enough, he and his father and brothers go fishing in the bay for croakers or spot. Fishing beats getting out the boxing gloves and sparring, as they did as boys. And nothing beats dropping by the "Waterfall Lounge" for a night cap.

In their time together, he and Penny sneak out to MacGregor's restaurant in Havre de Grace. Nothing smoother than looking out over the water with a bottle of Merlot. It's not a bad place, either, to sit with Penny Waters one May afternoon and chat about Luke Skywalker. She didn't know him by that nickname. She remembers him by another.

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