“When you pay attention things come out well not only in music but in life.”
“I am anonymous and have forgotten myself…”
Born in Raleigh, N.C. and raised in Charlotte, N.C., prolific composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist Charles Waters, who has been a quiet presence on the New York music scene for almost 20 years, states: “Growing up I played hand bells and piano and sang in the choir [at the] Baptist Church. I played alto saxophone at 10 and [then] moved onto baritone because I was tall. It was a monster to take to school everyday on the bus, but I did! Then I played tenor, then clarinet and bass clarinet, and finally flute. I was lucky to have two years of music theory in high school where I studied clarinet with Eugene Kavadlo of the Charlotte Symphony, theory with Sibby Lowry (a chain-smoking crazy lady who really gave me a love of theory), and composition at Davidson College before actually entering college. Music was my escape.”
Water’s roots are in the deep South, but major inspirations come from his long residency in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His compositions and playing range widely into jazz and contemporary classical with influences like Matthew Shipp, William Parker, John Zorn, Frederick Rzewski, and Morton Feldman. His new album on Amish Records, download or vinyl, is Chroma Colossus: 13 Visions of the City. Waters says, “When I finally got a ground floor apartment, I went back down to North Carolina and got my grandmother's small console piano—the piano I had played since childhood. Not a great piano, but the first time in my life that I had an actual instrument in my apartment. It made a big difference in my compositional approach. I was trained to compose without the piano. I still don't need anything to compose. I do in fact compose in my mind, see the colors and hear the instruments, watch the score go by. When I was young I remember being able to hear the bassoons in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. It all began with me and my North Carolina piano—you know and all that came with it: The John Coltrane soil and the Monk earth, The O. Henry blessings and the Joseph Mitchell stories, the hometown Saint of Fairmont, N.C. where that piano came from. So, yes, it was something nice to have the piano—made me think about harmony in a new way.” And so Chroma Colossus, with the iconic Flatiron Building gracing its front and back covers, was born, with a vision of New York only a person from elsewhere can have, someone who embraces this town with all its foibles, joys, and sorrows. Waters holds a day job as a caterer on movie shoots and spends much of his time exploring the streets of this city, which I’m sure helps expand that vision. His jazz-oriented quartet shows us glimpses of the city that are like his own photographs of Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, and Central Park. When Waters takes us for a ride on the subway during “Rush Hour,” (the title of two tunes) we are there. When he plays “Rain” we catch the drops as they saturate the concrete-worn city streets—with Chris McIntyre on trombone, George Rush on bass, and long time collaborator Andrew Barker on drums (another southern boy transplanted to Brooklyn who co-founded the seminal Gold Sparkle Band with Waters). Only one of Gold Sparkle’s original members remains in the south, trumpeter Roger Ruzow, who has started what is possibly the first southern Afro-klezmer band.
Waters explains, “I met Roger in college, so he and I have played together for 25 years. He was a rocker back then. We moved in together and immediately began experimenting with sound and life from Boulez to Black Sabbath, Bach to Bebop.” Ruzow will be in town some time within the next two years for an anticipated Waters’ residency at The Stone.
About his obsession with this city and the record’s title, Waters goes on to say, “What is this thing with jazz composers and numbers? Perhaps the inherent mysticism of improvisation—the old hat trick. Pulling things out of thin air! So other than just being another portrait of a city, this record is part of a long lineage of numbers, tunes, and addresses, like Dolphy’s ‘17 West’ or Ellington’s ‘A Train.’ And right now, Freddie, my nine-month-old, pulls out the Gato Barbieri-Dollar Brand duo record from ’68 which includes a lovely song called ‘81st St.’ I'll cover it. Gonna do a companion set of city cover songs next.”
The new record is like those postcard-stands outside souvenir shops. Give one a spin and every time you listen you are bound to come at it from a new angle, finding a place you thought familiar and seeing it for the first time.
And speaking of new, check out musician/composer Dan Joseph’s new series Music Ecologies at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. It’s not just worth it for the varied programming but for the beautiful setting.
In American Songbook (Ugly Duckling Presse 2013) Michael Ruby’s poetry begins in familiar territory: with a tune that most of us know and can hum. Then it completely derails us by re/deconstructing the original as to render it almost unrecognizable. Ruby knows his source materials well and he extracts, interjects, interposes, and interpolates from and within the originals. Even with his mangling of subject matter while romping through America’s musical heartland (be it pop, blues, jazz, folk, or plain old patriotic mush), his obvious love for these songs, their heritage, their life-breaths, is always present. You’ll never hear The Star-Spangled Banner the same way. Or should I say Star-mangled Banner. An intellectual tongue and mind twister.
I dedicate this column to Lou Reed, who helped reinforce the spirit of individuality both dark and sweet in life through at least five generations. Lou inspired many to “take a walk on the wild side.” And we’ll do just that.
This is a longer version of the article that appears in the print issue of December 2013/January 2014.