An Interview with Kirk Whalum – Dancing to a Different Drummer
The ‘Unconditional’ Essence of
by Paula Edelstein
The world fell in love with Kirk Whalum when he wailed his trademark saxophone stylings on Whitney Houston’s smash hit, “I Will Always Love You,” and his legions of fans still hold their breath when he picks up his Guardala and takes center stage. The heartfelt UNCONDITIONAL love of Kirk Whalum is the highest ideal for his beloved fans and this Autumn, his young and not so young fans will experience some of his most inspired works. Whalum’s brand new release on Warner Brothers is a collection of ten great songs that present the essence of Kirk Whalum in an UNCONDITIONAL elevation of his musical spirit.
The tenor sax master kicks off his set with a performance of the passionate “Now ‘Til Forever,” followed by a tribute to one of America’s jazz treasures, Grover Washington, Jr. As composer, arranger, saxophonist and producer, Kirk Whalum presents seven original compositions that the Grammy-nominated artist collaborated on with Paul Brown. Combining funk grooves and powerful jazz chops, the duo is the same team that produced the slammin’ hit FOR YOU, the smash success that topped the charts for nearly two years! The genre-spanning compositions include great alto saxophone improvisations from Kirk on “Real Love,” a sax voice Whalum set aside after his GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAZZ, in addition to his excellent tenor’s emotional range. Whalum is a man that is playing stronger and the listening gets better and better. Great arrangements, superior tonality, and excellent compositional integrity make this one a winner for the comprehensive smooth saxman.
Kirk Whalum is joined by Paul Jackson, Jr. and Tony Maiden on guitar, Luis Conte and Lenny Castro on percussion, Alex Al on bass, new label mate John Stoddart on backing vocals and Wendy Moten on the sizzler, “Real Love.” We were fortunate to attend a session for the press and talked about UNCONDITIONAL with the gifted sax innovator:
JazzUSA: Hello Kirk! Congratulations on your brand new release for Warner Brothers UNCONDITIONAL!
KW: Thank you very much!
JazzUSA: The loving, spiritual and fun sides of your musical relationships all unfold on UNCONDITIONAL, a brilliant collection of original compositions crafted to reveal the feelings and essence of Kirk Whalum. This is certainly a new way to enjoy your masterful work and there’s nearly always a story behind a story! What’s the story behind the story with respect to the period of woodshedding that you did after the smash success FOR YOU? Why you chose to primarily focus on your duties as a writer, producer, and arranger?
KW: For me, it was kind of a step back to the past. When I first got signed as a recording artist, I had already been performing on the local level in Houston, Texas. I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee but went to Texas Southern University and right away got involved in the music scene. For almost three years I had been performing with my own band and 90% original music…songs that I was writing and arranging. For me, that was my comfort zone. Then, all of a sudden, I was in the recording world where it’s like a different ballgame. So, for me to go back to a record that is centered around my own compositions really is putting back on the hat that just fits so well.
JazzUSA: The very first song just melted me! I mean, opening with “Now ‘Til Forever,” has an immediate emotional impact and really sets the mood for a great program. Did you sequence the UNCONDITIONAL this way so that your listeners could re-discover this side of the Whalum essence first…that is, so that the love and inspired beauty comes shining through from the very first song?
KW: Well thank you! I really have to say for that part of things, I totally take my hat off to Paul Brown, who produced this record. It was primarily his sequencing that seemed to work. He has so many great instincts along these lines that I am just very much grateful for that connection. He and Matt Pierson were the driving forces behind FOR YOU, which for me was an incredible serendipity…as they say, never thinking that it would go to the heights that it did. Now, it’s hard to find yourself rebounding off something that was that successful. But yet, again it’s great to be working with Paul, especially for the reasons that you mentioned…where you know exactly what song to open with and what song to close with and those are instincts that I certainly appreciate from him.
JazzUSA: Your respect for Grover Washington, Jr. is also included on UNCONDITIONAL, through your original composition, “Grover Worked & Underpaid.” For us, it has three very profound elements in it — sometimes sad, mostly magical, but always funky! How did this song come to be written?
KW: Always funky! That was right behind an experience where I played at a tribute to him in Philadelphia alongside Gerald Albright, Najee and some other really fine musicians paying tribute to the master of this particular genre. Definitely when I got home, I was inspired to do something to capture the spirit of that “go-go DC” groove type thing that “Mister Magic” was. By the way, when I was a senior in high school, I competed for the “Mr. Melrose” crown, at Melrose High School in Memphis, Tennessee. I won the contest and the song that I played was “Mr. Magic!” The cute thing is that I went to my son’s talent show, he’s a bass player at the Nashville School of the Arts, and what song did they play…”Mr. Magic!” I thought that was so cute. But definitely, I have elements, at least the essence of “Mister Magic” in that song, “Grover Worked and Underpaid.”
JazzUSA: You’ve also included a great song for saxophonist David Sanborn…”Waltz for David,” and one about your son with “Song For Evan.” This says a lot about your inspirations and how you can take that inspiration to another level of musical personification. Do you have a basic ritual that you go through before sitting down to compose or were these songs just there, “floating on the wind” and came right to you?
KW: Yeah and just grab one out! Well my ritual is simple. I pray and I ask God to give me the kind of songs that will affect people. Songs that speak of Him and not me, you know in a sense that melody is something that really…in the real, deep, corners of this thing called music; it really all comes from Him. It has to be something that He inspires. When I sit down, many times what I start working on right away doesn’t amount to much of anything! But having prayed that prayer, ultimately I get around to something, like some kind of idea will come out the song that I was working on. That idea is its own little seed…kind of like how a seed falls out of a tree, it’s already gone. But that little seed forms its own tree and many times that tree gives birth and overtakes the other tree. That happens to me a lot.
JazzUSA: What a great metaphor Kirk! Even though you’ve included three covers on UNCONDITIONAL, your brand new approach to the influential music of respected contemporary composers, Paul Brown, Shai, Evan Rogers, and Carl Sturken on such hits as “Can’t Stop The Rain,” N’Sync’s hit, “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time on You,” and Macy Gray’s award-winner, “I Try,” is great! Your spiritual side really comes through on “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You,” because your saxophone is speaking in a pure, immaculate voice of its own. Did you feel really close to these songs for any particular reason?
KW: Definitely. For me it was a real blessing for me to interpret those melodies. I think of Miles Davis and I think of other artists who take melodies from another world. In other words, jazz is one world and definitely Alanis Morrisette is another world, you know. But there are melodies that can be shared if you interpret them in the right way you can bring a whole different light to them. So “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time” and “I Try” really seemed to work and there is a very commercial side of that. When you play songs that people already know, they appreciate your doing that. They say, “Oh that’s my favorite song. I just appreciate your doing that!” That’s something that works. FOR YOU was just that…us playing songs that people love.
JazzUSA: And we certainly did love that Kirk. It’s still wonderful. The title track, “Unconditional,” is also beautiful, rich and resonant. Your sax voice clearly explores and brings to life the roots of true love…love that is unconditional and from the source that started it all. Would you say this was a direct delivery to your heart also?
KW: Oh, absolutely!
JazzUSA: “Real Love,” is great and is so funky with Wendy Moten’s vocals. Together you express a fun and loving side of this urban sizzler through your melodic lyricism, soulful sounds and emotional power that has become your trademark. In fact, you set your musical senses free on this one. Is there one key that truly affects you more so than any other in order to get that great harmony, melody and rhythm all working just right?
KW: No, actually but given a context, there are keys that work better in a given context. I think this song is in C and I guess this worked for that particular context. Another thing is that I am playing alto on that song and I very seldom play alto saxophone. This is the first CD besides THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAZZ, where I played any alto at all.
JazzUSA: Well that explains why I heard it in a different key. Kirk, what is your preferred saxophone and do you have a favorite reed that helps to deliver just the right signature sound your fans have come to know and love?
KW: The tenor is my favorite instrument. I play Guardala and Keilwerth saxophones, and play Rico Reeds with Guardala mouthpieces.
JazzUSA: I must say, our online universe comes out of cyberspace from time to time to witness your great shows in person! (Smile) Will you be appearing in concert live anytime soon and if so, where can we see you?
KW: (Laughs) Yes as a matter of fact. On the 23rd we’ll be at the Seattle Center in Seattle, Washington; on September 24th we’ll be playing the San Diego Jazz Festival in San Diego, CA; on September 29th we’ll be at the Hyatt Newporter in Newport Beach, CA; October 6th we’re playing the Millennium Theatre in Robinsonville, Mississippi and on October 22nd, we’ll be appearing at the Catalina Jazz Festival on Catalina Island, CA!
JazzUSA: We can’t wait! Well folks, there you have it. The great Kirk Whalum. Congratulations on your great new release UNCONDITIONAL and we’re looking forward to seeing you in concert. Thank you so much for this interview. Keep in touch.
KW: Thank you Paula. I really appreciate it.