Kirk Whalum - The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter IV (2015)

Kirk Whalum
kirkwhalum-gospeliv.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Kirk Whalum starts the fourth installment of his The Gospel According to Jazz series with a saxophone solo of the hymn “Just As I Am,” a tune that is a standard in Christian hymnals across denominations and throughout the world. At that point, many in the audience might expect the rest of the album to include standard performances of straight ahead and contemporary jazz takes on entries from the Great American Gospel Songbook, interspersed with selections from current gospel performers such as Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp or Tamela Mann. But by the second song on this 28 track live album – a funky take on the Paul McCartney and Wings tune “Let ‘Em In” sung by vocalist and keyboardist John Stoddart and featuring New Orleans styled brass, interspersed with a shuffle march beat - the realization that Whalum might have something else in mind starts to germinate.

Kirk Whalum starts the fourth installment of his The Gospel According to Jazz series with a saxophone solo of the hymn “Just As I Am,” a tune that is a standard in Christian hymnals across denominations and throughout the world. At that point, many in the audience might expect the rest of the album to include standard performances of straight ahead and contemporary jazz takes on entries from the Great American Gospel Songbook, interspersed with selections from current gospel performers such as Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp or Tamela Mann. But by the second song on this 28 track live album – a funky take on the Paul McCartney and Wings tune “Let ‘Em In” sung by vocalist and keyboardist John Stoddart and featuring New Orleans styled brass, interspersed with a shuffle march beat - the realization that Whalum might have something else in mind starts to germinate. Then Whalum comes with a Caribbean funk version of The Impressions’ “Keep On Pushing” and it becomes clear that Whalum plans to use this installment of The Gospel According to Jazz to – at least in part – expand the gospel music canon.

At some level, the abovementioned cuts do not represent a deviation from established practice in the gospel world. Gospel performers from James Cleveland to Kirk Franklin and Whalum himself have long endowed secular songs with a Christian interpretation. The saxophonist and his friend, the late, great George Duke, included a cup floweth over rendition of Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” on The Gospel According to Jazz: Chapter III. Yet, it’s not nearly as much of a stretch to imagine Paul McCartney’s rock classic reimagined as a gospel song as, say, James Cleveland’s remake of Gladys Knight’s “You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.” McCartney may have been talking about reading or learning in the song’s hook “Somebody’s knocking at the door/Somebody’s ringing the bell,” but Whalum and Stoddart know those words mirror the words of Christ in Revelation 3:20.

What Whalum really does on The Gospel According to Jazz: Chapter IV, is expand the topics that are addressed in gospel music. In truth, what he does throughout this live album is remind those in the concert hall, as well as those who will purchase a CD or a digital version, that Christianity is deeply concerned about the plight of the poor. That fact is often overlooked in much of the discourse that takes place in the church.  Whalum has spent much of his time working with homeless populations, as well as victims of gun violence, and the affect that work had on him is a recurring theme throughout this concert, but particularly in the second half. He ends the concert’s first half with a hard bop number titled “Triage” that is a cry of protest in the manner of John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” as well as a homage to hard bop giants such as Coltrane, Miles Davis and Art Blakey and guitarist Wes Montgomery.

The previous number, “Un Amor Supremo,” uses as its starting point Jimmy Garrison’s four note bass motif from the classic song “A Love Supreme” to create an Afro-Cuban reworking that is simply magnificent. Percussionist Leonard “Doc” Gibbs turns the cut from a work of meditation into a joyous spiritual samba. Whalum clearly was aware of the legal troubles facing Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke and likely Sam Smith as well because the saxophonist mentions that he uses Garrison’s theme “so we wouldn’t get into any trouble,” to chuckles from the crowd. The inclusion of this cut, inspired by “A Love Supreme,” on a gospel recording would likely make John Coltrane very happy. The legendary saxophonist used the liner notes on the album A Love Supreme to detail the role that spirituality played in his recovery from the heroin addiction that got Trane and the other members of Miles Davis’ first great quintet fired by the trumpeter. Whalum believes that most churches err in not understanding and accepting the spirituality in Coltrane’s music and would like to see some of that music included in the gospel music canon.

Kirk Whalum’s ability to recognize the spirituality in Coltrane’s music enables him to see the divine in the people he encounters in his work with impoverished people in Memphis. He knows those people often get overlooked by their neighbors, but they are not overlooked by God and the jazz ballad “I See You,” another high point on this album, serves as a reminder that God sees all things and all people and respect and fair treatment of the poor is a divine commandment. Additionally, the singer Shelea’s vocals are excellent. Other high points include the soul jazz “Cain’t Stay Blue,” an ensemble vocal number that features some electric organ playing right out of the Brother Jack McDuff school, and “There,” Whalum’s loving tribute to his friend and collaborator George Duke.

It is on record from the highest authority that the poor will always be with us, and despite numerous efforts to give the art form its last rites, jazz will always be with us as well. The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter IV finds Kirk Whalum creatively using the latter to remind his listeners of the former and in the process creating one of the most memorable albums of his enviable career. Solidly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes 

 
Featured Album - Will Downing - "Romantique, Part 1"
Featured Album - The Soul Rebels - "Poetry In Motion"
Album of the Month - Plunky & Oneness - "Afroclectic"
Choice Cut - Chris Jasper - "For The Love of You"

Leave a comment!