Kirk Whalum

Kirk Whalum

    Developing a singular voice on an instrument as common as the saxophone is a nearly hopeless undertaking, with scores of distinctive players having already established their stylistic territory. Still, in contemporary jazz the instrument is so universally loved that its pervasive draw is hard to resist for the young musician-to-be, creating an onslaught of players that is nearly inconceivable. These direct offspring of Grover Washington, Jr. and David Sanborn seem to appear out of thin air, falling to the ground like snowflakes, creating a single smooth-sounding blanket, to be shoveled into a glistening yet superfluous pile. Sure, no two are exactly the same, but to tell the difference usually takes more bother than it's worth.

    But after Grover and Sanborn, there is a third player who stands out as truly unique among the most important saxophonists in contemporary jazz: Kirk Whalum.

    Kirk Whalum was born in 1958 in Memphis, the son of a Baptist minister and a postal executive. From the beginning, the essence of Memphis soul was undeniably in his blood; growing up with the music of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, Al Green and the like has that effect on a young man. Of course, it certainly didn't hurt to have the drummer for the legendary Stax group the Bar-Kays living next door and Soulsville, USA within walking distance.

    At 12, it was time to choose an instrument, and Kirk was immediately drawn to the saxophone; his uncle "Peanuts" Whalum was a St. Louis-based saxophonist, which is one reason why he was naturally drawn to it. Shortly thereafter, Kirk was lucky enough to get exposure to the music of Gene Ammons, Hank Crawford and Sonny Stitt at, of all places, the home of the church secretary.

    Kirk attended Texas Southern University in Houston, a school whose alumni include Hubert and Ronnie Laws and the founding members of the Crusaders: Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Stix Hooper. During this period his greatest inspiration came from Texas tenor great Arnett Cobb, who lived just a few blocks from the school.  Cobb would often come by to do clinics for the young players, and he took special interest in Kirk, with the two developing a particularly close bond.  (Kirk still wears the ring that the saxophonist left to him, a sterling silver symbol of Arnett's legacy.)

    He soon began performing around Houston with his own group, and was busy several nights a week, complementing his school work with on-the-job training. Kirk quickly developed a strong following, with his base expanding to include nearby Austin.

    A fortuitous event took place in 1983 when Kirk opened for master keyboardist Bob James. As Bob tells it, "I realized that I was going to have a big challenge on my hands, following this amazing saxophone player who totally brought down the house by the end of his set. His superb musicianship and warm personality totally won me over." Bob was so blown away that he flew Whalum to New York two weeks later to play on his recording, 12.  "Not only did Kirk deliver his magic sound, he also contributed a great original, ‘Ruby, Ruby, Ruby' that became a major highlight to my project. This was the beginning of a long musical and personal friendship."

    James signed Kirk to Columbia through his Tappan Zee Records imprint, and also produced his 1985 debut recording, Floppy Disk. However, it was his sophomore effort, And You Know That! that put Whalum on the map. There is no mistaking the timeless and heartfelt swoon of Kirk's tenor, and tracks like Nat Adderley, Jr.'s "The Wave" established the young Memphis tenor man as a distinctive voice in contemporary jazz.

    His third Columbia recording, The Promise was his most fully realized statement to this point, with highlights including the Jerry Peters co-produced track "I Receive Your Love", which he composed with the great Skip Scarborough, and the Latin-flavored "Desperately". 

    In 1987, guitar master Larry Carlton called out of the blue, asking Kirk to perform on his cover of the Doobie Brothers' tune "Minute by Minute".  Upon arriving in L.A., it became obvious to Kirk that although he would have been content staying in Houston, a move to the West coast would provide him with significant career opportunities, so he loaded up the family and made a move. Of course, once there, he was quickly getting calls for sessions, including work with Luther Vandross, Al Jarreau, and many others.  Finally, the day after working with Whitney Houston's musical director Ricky Minor, Kirk got the call to tour with Whitney, beginning a fruitful seven-year creative relationship.

    When the vocalist was recording the soundtrack for her film The Bodyguard, she insisted that her working band be featured, involving Whalum in one of the most successful albums ever recorded. In particular, Kirk was the featured soloist on Whitney's cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You", which became the biggest single in rock history, making Kirk's impassioned tenor solo probably the most listened to sax performance of all time. This perfectly blissful musical testimonial stands with Phil Woods' brilliant playing on Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" and Michael Brecker's ten-bar masterpiece on James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" as the most sublime saxophone solos in popular music.

    It had been nearly four years since the release of The Promise, and after three albums made in collaboration with Bob James, Kirk decided to mix it up by working with several producers on his long-overdue fourth release, Cache.  Driven by the single "Love Is a Losing Game", featuring Jevetta Steele, it became Whalum's best selling album to date.

    In 1995, Kirk recorded two projects that were significant departures: The Southern soul-infused In This Life and Joined at the Hip, a collaboration with Bob James that garnered the first of his seven Grammy® nominations. This was a period of great transition in Kirk's life, both personally, with him relocating to Nashville in 1996, and professionally, with a move to Warner Bros. Records in 1997. Whalum had already recorded several tracks for his next project, which would become known as Colors (though the complete title is Colors, Colores, Couleurs). As Kirk states, "The concept was to present a celebration of the strength and unity in diversity, both at home and abroad." The project was deliberately varied, covering Latin, pop, soul, straight-ahead, and of course Gospel.

    Although Kirk is a terrific composer, he has always proven himself to be a brilliant interpreter of popular song, so when the time came to cut his next recording, he tackled a program of soul and R&B cover tunes.  Thanks in no small part to the talents of producer Paul Brown, who in addition to having worked with Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire, and others, had become the top hitmaker in Smooth Jazz, the project For You became the most successful recording of Kirk Whalum's career.

    Kirk followed up For You with a project consisting mainly of material he had written or co-written, and then Into My Soul, which was recorded in his hometown of Memphis and produced by Memphis soul legend David Porter.

    Whalum is an ordained minister, and his music has always been infused with a huge dose of spirituality. Over the years, he has performed on dozens of Gospel projects by the likes of Al Green, The Winans, Andre Crouch,  Bebe  & Cece, and Donnie McClurkin. However, to take his musical ministry to another level, he began recording his own Gospel projects, beginning with the very successful Gospel According to Jazz: Chapter 1 in 1988, and launched an extraordinary second career.  The great success of these projects is also exhibited by the fact that three of them garnered Kirk Grammy® nominations.

    After signing on with Dave Koz's Rendezvous Entertainment, Kirk Whalum tackled the music of Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds with Kirk Whalum Performs the Babyface Songbook. The project not only makes a case for Babyface as one of the most important pop composers of his generation, but shows that Whalum is one of the great melodists playing today.

    After living in Nashville for the past several years, now that their children have all left the nest Kirk and his beautiful wife Ruby recently decided to moved back home to Memphis, with Kirk taking a position as Artist in Residence at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Kirk reflected on his motivation as he moves on to the next exciting phase of his career:

    "As a musician, I have always endeavored to do two things.  First is to reflect the real creative One. No matter what I happen to be playing, I strive to get everything else out of the way and just worship Him through the instrument. Second, I'm trying to grow on this instrument, trying to live up to the bar that has been set in terms of skill and technique. I know that this may not put me in the best position to succeed in this industry, where it seems that the ones who do best are the ones who excel at ‘working the politics of it all.' I don't suppose there's anything wrong with that, but I kinda' like being able to feel good about remaining true to why I started playing saxophone in the first place - to be really good at it!"

    By Matt Pierson