An Interview with Kirk Whalum
by Mark Ruffin
The titles of both of Kirk Whalum’s new albums, Unconditional and The Staff, say a lot about the make up of the 42 year-old musician. The popular saxophonist is currently touring the country in a package with bassist Waymon Tisdale and the group Kombo.
“I bear witness to Jesus and I honor my wife, Ruby, Whalum said by phone after a performance in Indianapolis. “I am very vocal in both those areas.”
Back when he was 12, Whalum met his wife at a Memphis church where his father was assistant pastor. That same year, at that same church, is where he gave his first public performance, appropriately choosing Amazing Grace for his debut.
Religion and the strong love of both family and music have been constants in the life of the exciting horn player. So it should come as no surprise that at the height of his popularity in the secular contemporary jazz world, Whalum is diving headfirst into mixing gospel and jazz.
Whalum wants to reinvigorate the jazz/gospel scene that had it’s momentum stalled in the late 80’s. He thinks there’s a wide untapped market for spiritually influenced jazz.
“Just like in smooth jazz, or anything else, it takes somebody to plan and identify the audience,” he said emphatically, “someone to tap people on the shoulder and say, you like this, don’t you?’
“People would just need to know the music is anointed, that it comes from the heart of God and a person who has Christ living on the inside.
“From a spiritual standpoint, it’s a beautiful thing,” he continued. “I’m talking about inspirational music that’s supposed to touch a person’s heart with the power of the gospel. Jazz is the perfect venue for that.”
An examination into the making of Whalum’s three gospel albums conjures up the cliché that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.
As a player, the be-bop of the 40’s and 50’s, and contemporary players Ronnie Laws and Wilton Felder heavily influenced him, as did the musical gumbo of his Tennessee hometown. Whalum eventually, quite by chance, went to the same college Laws and Felder attended, Texas Southern University.
He became a top session player in Houston before being discovered by the legendary keyboardist, Bob James. His subsequent deal with Columbia records lasted nine years from 1985, and produced five albums.
“When I got kicked to the curb by Columbia in 1996, my wife and I decided that it was a God thing,” he remembered. “We looked at it as a step forward, as opposed to losing a job.”
One of Whalum’s frustrations with Columbia was their inflexibility in allowing him to step outside of the contemporary jazz world. He said the mega-corporation would only let one sax player experiment with crossing boundaries and that was former Columbia executive Branford Marsalis.
“When I finally got out of there, it was like here’s my chance to play what I want, and I wanted to do a live gospel record and I did.”
That was in 1998, when Whalum made The Gospel According To Jazz. Warner Brothers picked up the album, which included performances from George Duke and Paul Jackson Jr., after he signed with them in 1996.
“I made sure that in my Warner contract, that I had the right to do gospel records on the side, and to pursue a gospel direction, with them getting the first right of refusal. But they turned down the second album three times.”
Sales on Whalum’s secular albums soared, with the release For You spending two years in the top ten of the national jazz sales charts, which is where Unconditional is currently sitting. Despite that, the company balked at the sax man’s second gospel album, leaving him with a huge studio bill.
The album, Hymns: In The Garden, became his first all acoustic record, and with his own money, he started a company and put it out himself. The label is called Top Drawer Records, and the name is derived from the scripture that says if I be lifted up, I’ll draw all men onto me.’
“I put that record out basically on the Internet, and out of the trunk. It eventually got nominated for a Grammy,” he said with a beam. “That is God, because his timing is perfect.”
Warner Brothers did eventually come around and will be releasing Hymns: In The Garden later this year. In the meantime, that album and The Staff are available at kirkwhalum.com
“I really enjoy the freedom I have with gospel jazz because basically I can play whatever I want to play,” Whalum said. “There’s no radio guidelines because we’re creating on the fly, so improvisation takes on a whole new meaning.
“It’s like what (John) Coltrane was getting at,” he concluded. “He went deeper and deeper and got more complex. “He was right in that sense. It’s like a scientist studying science that can’t get to the end, because God created it and it’s infinite. The same thing applies with music.”