Mosaic Contemporary is really onto a winner. Recognizing that nearly every important artist in contemporary jazz has recorded seminal material for more than one record company they have set about licensing the most important tracks from various labels and then arranging them into chronological compilations. In this way Mosaic are, for the first time ever, delivering definitive highlights of an artist's career and the latest addition to their flagship 'Ultimate' collection is sax star Kirk Whalum. 'The Ultimate Kirk Whalum' provides a glowing showcase of his work to date but, moreover, offers a glimpse of how smooth jazz has evolved over the last twenty years and a reminder of the outstanding producers and performers with whom Whalum has collaborated over that time.
Whalum got his first big break in 1983 when he was booked to open for Bob James in Houston, TX. James was immediately blown away by the young Whalum's talent and invited him to play on his recording '12'. This in turn led James to sign Whalum to Columbia through his Tappan Zee Records imprint and to produce his 1985 debut release 'Floppy Disk'. However, it was his 1988 follow-up 'And You Know That' which really put him on the contemporary jazz map and it's with the standout track from the album, 'The Wave', that 'The Ultimate Kirk Whalum' begins its journey. Also produced by Bob James, it perfectly demonstrates just how far ahead of its time the music of Whalum has often been and, for those just discovering Whalum's discography, is a good enough reason to purchase this outstanding collection.
A year later the Whalum - James combination was back in train with 'The Promise'. The album includes the Whalum composition 'Desperately' that features James on keyboards and which, eighteen years on, remains as fresh as the day it was first released. From the same album and perhaps even better is the stunningly soulful 'I Receive Your Love'. With Paul Jackson Jr on guitar and spine tingling backing vocals from Syreeta, Dorian Holly and Darryl Phinnessee this slice of urban jazz brings out the very best of Whalum's hallmark sound. When the chronology switches to 1993, and the 'Cache' CD, he stays in soulful mode for 'Love Is A Losing Game' where the haunting vocal of Jevetta Steele provides a shimmering backdrop for Whalum's impassioned playing.
'All I Need', from the 1997 CD 'Colors', finds Whalum in a mellow collaboration with writer, producer and keyboard player Philippe Saise while in similar vein is 'My All' from the 1998 release 'For You'. Featuring Peter White, it's the first of several tracks built on the production genius of Paul Brown and the vibe Brown routinely engenders is massively on show with 'Ascension' from the same album. Jackson Jr., Alex Al, Ricky Peterson and Lynne Fiddmont all contribute to this Whalum classic and, fast forwarding to 2000, 'Now 'Til Forever' from the 'Unconditional' release again has Paul Brown's production touches all over it. Another featured cut from 'Unconditional' is the big, melodic 'Playing With Fire'. Held down by Roberto Vally on bass it is flecked by Peter White's distinctive guitar and, of course, superb playing by Whalum.
Kirk Whalum was born in Memphis, TN and his 1993 CD 'Into My Soul' is his homage to the soul music that flowed from that city. Here the selected song is the restrained yet soulful title track that Whalum writes and produces with legendary Stax producer David Porter. A tribute of a different kind comes courtesy of his self explanatory 2005 release 'Kirk Whalum Performs The Babyface Songbook'. Not surprisingly Whalum's biggest hit from that album, the velvety 'Exhale (Shoop Shoop)', is included which notwithstanding his picture perfect playing has, due to the appearance on it of Melinda Doolittle, gained some notoriety. The American Idol runner up provides backing vocals and as a result was criticized in some quarters for having credentials a 'little too professional' for a show that ostensibly is a talent contest for newcomers.
It is fitting that the 'The Ultimate Kirk Whalum' winds down with 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee' from the 'Hymns In The Garden' CD. Whalum's faith is never far from the music that he plays and this inspirational tune perfectly fuses his gospel roots with the great respect he has for the traditions of jazz.
With the 'The Ultimate Kirk Whalum' Mosaic Contemporary is providing a wonderful opportunity to rediscover some of the timeless gems that have both framed Whalum's career and made him a true colossus of the genre. For more go to: MosaicContemporary
by Denis Poole, www.smoothjazztherapy.com