By Jonathan Widran

Fresh from several years of on-and-off touring with former Warner Bros. labelmates Rick Braun and Norman Brown as part of BWB, Kirk Whalum is gearing up to take part in two of this summer's most anticipated all-star smooth jazz tours. Both are tributes to artists that the popular saxophonist has had the privilege of knowing and working with––Groovin' for Grover (with the newly revamped lineup of Whalum, Jeff Lorber and Gerald Albright performing the music of the late Grover Washington, Jr.) and Forever for Always for Luther, playing the classic R&B hits of Luther Vandross with Brian Culbertson, Lalah Hathaway and Paul Jackson, Jr.

Whalum, who paid tribute to Washington with the cleverly titled “Groverworked and Underpaid”—which was clearly influenced by the classic “Mr. Magic”––on his 2000 album Unconditional cites the legendary Philly saxman as a primary influence. They never officially performed together, but both were signed to Sony Music for years and Whalum has fond memories of meeting and jamming with him various times at corporate conventions.

“I looked forward every year to those functions because I knew he'd be there and he was so great to be around,” Whalum says. “I remember this one impromptu jam session in the lobby of this Vancouver hotel in the late '80s. He was just there, playing the sax with this local piano player for fun and I asked if I could sit in. Pretty soon, Nancy Wilson and Cyndi Lauper were singing and Joe Zawinal was jamming with us, too. Grover was that kind of person. He loved people and enjoyed what he did. So many people make this business about the industry, fame and fortune, but he was all about playing his instrument.”

More than any other sax legend whose work has inspired Whalum's generation and the current generation of smooth jazz saxmen, Whalum believes that Washington was most responsible for the mix of jazz improvisation and grooving R&B that has come to define the modern genre. “The connection is very clear, as if every time any of us make a record, Grover's spirit is there, pointing towards the future of R&B, funk and hip-hop with one hand, and holding up the straight-ahead jazz banner with the other,” he says. “He was really standing in the gap for all of us, representing the continuum.”

Whalum has an even more profound professional connection to Luther Vandross, the beloved, Grammy winning singer who was debilitated by a tragic stroke in 2003. He toured with the singer in the late '80s and has played the sax on six Vandross recordings, including the classics Any Love, Power of Love and Your Secret Love. This summer's tour grew out of last year's acclaimed tribute CD Forever for Always for Luther, which featured Whalum, Culbertson, Jackson and Hathaway, in addition to other genre icons like Boney James, Rick Braun, and George Benson.

“As we have seen from the success of that album, people are still hungry for Luther's music,” says Whalum. “He was such a big part of the R&B scene for so many years, and for him just to vanish like that hit people hard. It's very special for me to be able to go out and play his songs. It's not just about getting a call to do a cool tour and making some money, it's about the emotional connection I feel to the man and his music. Between these tours and some of my own dates with my band, with Michael Manson adding upright bass and a new keyboard player, I'm really excited about this summer.”

Whalum, who has also been part of the annual Guitars & Saxes franchise twice, believes that all-star tour packages make sense not only economically for both the musicians and fans, but truly capture the symbiotic essence of what makes jazz such a unique art form.

“Promoters and fans are always trying to figure out how to get the most bang for their buck, but there's something beyond that,” he says. “It's kind of a throwback to a time when it was all about collaboration. When Miles Davis played, it wasn't just about the magic spell he cast. People came because he might play with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Wayne Shorter or Tony Williams. The ensemble was part of the fun of the show. Because smooth jazz has moved into more of a pop thing, there's been a danger, with so many solo artists, of losing that edge. One fan told me he enjoyed my solo set but felt I kicked it up a notch when I started jamming with Peter White. We're all inspired when we play with great artists.”

Before he hits the road, Whalum will be finishing up his latest album, a tribute to the great R&B songwriter and producer Babyface that marks his debut on Dave Koz's independent label Rendezvous Music. With covers of well known R&B classics like “I Said I Love You,” “Not Gon' Cry,” “Breathe Again” and “Exhale,” the collection is taking on a vibe similar Whalum's extraordinarily successful 1998 hit For You, which also featured his interpretations of great pop-soul tunes. Whalum enjoys balancing very personal recordings like Unconditional and 2003's Into My Soul (his last for Warner Bros. which was fashioned as a tribute to his hometown of Memphis) with these very pop-flavored projects.

“Matt Pierson, the A&R guy at Warner Bros. at the time, felt that one of my strengths was interpreting melodies, and he urged me to make For You in addition to The Gospel According To Jazz, which showcased the spiritual side of my playing. For You was a fun record to make, and I had been wanting to do the Babyface material for a long time. I've worked with him, am a big fan of his and most of all, I believe in the songs.”

After years with two major labels, Whalum is excited about signing with Rendezvous, home now to Michael Lington, Wayman Tisdale and Marc Antoine, as well as big European chill-oriented artists like Praful. “One major label wanted to sign me after Warner Jazz closed its doors, but the deal wasn't right,” he says. “I saw that Rendezvous was moving into the future regarding online technologies, plus it had a great growing roster. Their quality and integrity has been incredible. It's a broad, full service operation.”

A devoted family man, Whalum is grateful for the modern miracle of text messaging, which makes it easier to keep in touch with his wife Ruby and four children. He's been to L.A. and New York numerous times recording his new album, and two of the kids no longer live near home in Nashville. Twenty-one-year-old Kyle, bassist in a band called Sweet Tea, and 18-year-old Evan (an aspiring filmmaker, soon to graduate high school) live at home, but 27-year-old Courtney lives in Virginia and Kory (age 19) is studying international business in New Orleans.

“I call this rolling with the changes of being a modern, growing family,” he says. “The average parents don't talk to their kids who are far away every day, but I love to text them even when they don't have time to talk long. I text them all every day, asking what they're doing, and I love it when they text back. Each of the kids is taking his own road, and I'm proud to encourage them the way my parents encouraged me. When my bassist Michael Manson lost his son tragically a few years ago, it was a wake-up call for everyone in my band, like what is this all about? I see music as my calling and I've always felt that my music was an entry point into spiritual experience for me. I'm always striving to be a faithful doorkeeper for the Holy Spirit to shine through.”

For more information on Whalum, including his complete touring schedule, log on to www.kirkwhalum.com.

June 18
Big Bear Lake JazzTrax Summer Festival
Top of the Mountain, Snow Summit Resort, 880 Summit Blvd., Big Bear Lake, California
www.jazztrax.com

Oct. 7
Bermuda Music Festival
Royal Naval Dockyard, Sandys Parish, Bermuda
www.bermudamusicfestival.com

Nov. 5-12
Dave Koz & Friends at Sea Cruise
Holland America, ms Oosterdam
Ports of Call: Cabo San Lucas Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta
www.davekozcruise.com

 

Discography:
1985
Floppy Disk
Columbia
1988 And You Know That! Columbia
1989 The Promise Columbia
1993 Cache Columbia
1995 In This Life Columbia
1997 Colors Columbia
1998 For You Warner Bros.
1998 The Gospel AccordingTo Jazz Warner Bros.
1999 Joy Intersound
2000 Unconditional Warner Bros
2001 Hymns in the Garden Warner Bros.
2001 The Christmas Message Warner Bros.
2002 The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter 2 Warner Bros.
2003 Into My Soul Warner Bros.

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