May 19, 2024
From smooth jazz to bebop
Kickin’ it with Kirk Whalum
by Mark Ruffin

There are certain smooth jazz musicians who’ve never thought about playing straight ahead jazz, or what is also known as bebop. Then there are some smooth jazzers like guitarist Norman Brown, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and trumpeter Rick Braun, who, at the start of their careers thought they were going to be be-bop players.

“The three of us really came out of the be-bop thing,” said Whalum, who, with the aforementioned artists, have a new album called Groovin’ under the name BWB.

Brown/Whalum/Braun“In terms of our education and where we saw ourselves when we got started, we were definitely be-bop players.

“I was trying to learn Sonny Rollins and James Moody solos, ” he continued listing the influences of the newly formed smooth jazz super group. “Norman was trying to learn (George) Benson and Wes Montgomery while Rick was working on his Freddie Hubbard.”

Purists from both the bebop and smooth jazz camps are going to be a bit surprised at BWB’s debut album. The quality and quantity of the improvisation contained on Groovin’ is certainly as step-up from the individual solo albums by the trio. The group is backed up by bassist Christian McBride and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, two musicians who are very well known in the bebop world.

The associate producer of the album is keyboard wizard Ricky Peterson, whose musical family is to Minneapolis what the Freeman, Heath and Marsalis families are to Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans respectively. His long list of credits includes George Benson, David Sanborn and Prince.

Producing is Matt Pierson who is also the vice-president of jazz at Warner Brothers Records.

“The way this record came about,” the sax man explained, “was when we were backstage, on more than three occasions, especially at the Montreux festival when we were doing nothing but bebopping, cause quiet as its kept, we don’t get to do that on our gigs.”

At the Montreux Jazz Festival of 1999, Warner Brothers had its whole jazz roster there, including this trio, plus George Duke, Bob James, Boney James and many others. The next year, the company put that performance of smooth jazz stars blowing hard bebop oriented contemporary jazz out on an excellent record called Casino Lights ’99.

Whalum said that is the kind of album that record companies call “documentation records.” It’s the kind of album where a normally very commercial artist makes a highly artistic record to show his peers and the record buying public that that musician can make a heavier or meatier album than what he/she normally does.

“Because of the economy, record companies are scared to death and feel like they have to cover their behinds,” exclaimed the 43 year-old musician.. “They feel like they really don’t have the time for us to be making documentation records to be prove that we can really play.

“But, after Montreux, I went to Matt, and I’m sure other musicians did too, and said ‘man we have to do something to preserve the spontaneity of (the Casino Lights record.)”

What the producer did was try to make progressive electric jazz music that was throwback to the late 70’s and early 80’s where fusion was dying and smooth jazz wasn’t around yet. The company that best exemplifies this period was called CTI, a company that made stars out of George Benson, Deodato, Bob James Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, and a then unknown named Grover Washington Jr.

“We all revere the whole CTI school of recording and Groovin’ is not a subtle tribute to that,” Whalum said. “We were trying to get back to that space.

“CTI was on to something and where the music was heading was very cool. But then the smooth jazz thing happened and I think smooth jazz is more like a bastard child of that music.”

More musicians like Whalum, Braun and Brown have been reacting to what many see as a stagnation in smooth jazz, mostly because of broadcasting consultants who are telling smooth jazz stations to play more pop and restrict their play lists. He feels that stations and record companies are underestimating the intelligence and musical acumen of the audience.

“What BWB can do potentially is perhaps facilitate this environment where people are wanting to hear musicians play again,” he emphasized. “Just really play.

“This is a very smart record and I feel like this is an opportunity to get the public attention with songs they all know. But we really anticipate stretching this into other directions, but still keeping it in a way that people can put it on at a party. That’s really the vibe and general idea of BWB.”

The ten songs on Groovin are all very well known cover tunes by D’Angelo, Donald Fagen, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Alicia Keys, Cannonball Adderley, the Isley Brothers, Parliament-Funkadelic, Freddie Hubbard, the Staple Singers (with sultry Dee Dee Bridgewater as Mavis Staples) and the title Young Rascals chestnut.

It was Whalum who came up with the title of the band. He said he thought of AWB and their very creative graphic logo and the irony of their initials, plus they could be thought of as the Black White Band. He said he never thought about the coincidence that this band records for the WB.

“Warner Brothers wanted to call the band Triple Threat, and I was like ‘a threat to do what?’

“If they wanted a threat, they could get Kenny Garrett, Wallace Roney and Mark Whitfield, and that would be a threat,” he said of the three highly regarded bebop musicians who play the same instruments as BWB.

“There’s already enough weirdness and enmity between these two camps of musicians,” Whalum concluded. ‘Plus this music is beautiful, it shouldn’t be a threat.”