Kirk Whalum has engaged in a happy artistic schizophrenia since For You, his first recording exclusively featuring colorful interpretations of contemporary pop and soul tunes — that’s a nice way to say “cover songs” - became the best selling release of his career in 1998. Since then, while also pursuing a successful career in jazz gospel, he has followed highly personal statements like Unconditional and Into My Soul with The Babyface Songbook, covering well-known chart toppers from the prolific R&B/pop composer.
Roundtrip, the saxophonist’s latest disc on Rendezvous Music, is his most joyously scattered date yet, mixing songs we know well, old tunes we’ve never heard but should have and cool new tracks featuring Whalum family members, fellow contemporary jazz icons Jeff Golub, Gerald Albright and Earl Klugh, R&B singer Shanice and fluidly cool spoken word poetry by “Tootie” from “The Facts Of Life” (a now grown up Kim Fields).
This is crazy all over the map fun, for sure, but for those willing to take the passionate and funky journey, there’s a method to his madness as he celebrates 22 years since his debut album Floppy Disk — and 23 since Bob James introduced Whalum to the world on his last Columbia disc, titled 12.
Though the saxman says the idea of covering himself started as something of a half-joke, he quickly realized that refashioning some of his old songs would lay a nice foundation for a project that’s both retrospective and forward thinking. He pays homage to influential icons like Grover Washington, Jr. (this time on the bouncy old school grooving “Big Ol’ Shoes,” written with producer Rex Rideout) while also acknowledging the modern influence of rap on R&B music (with the help of his nephew “Caleb The Bridge” on “Back In The Day”).
The title Round Trip is also a reference to the frequent flyer miles Whalum racked up doing sessions for the album with top genre producers Rex Rideout and Philippe Saisse, in addition to James McMillan, who has helmed projects for various American Idols and recorded the Prague Symphony Orchestra (in the Czech Republic!) to heighten the drama on a newfangled, heavy bottomed take on Whalum’s early radio hit “Desperately.” Tracking was done everywhere from Whalum’s current home base and original hometown of Memphis to East Sussex, U.K., Atlanta, New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
“As hectic as all this studio hopping was, it’s the perfect reflection of all the moves I’ve made with my family over the years,” says Whalum. “We started in Memphis, went to Houston, then Pasadena, Paris and Nashville before making the real round trip back home. I’m grateful to be around and still making music. Nothing’s guaranteed in this business and I’m always looking for new ways to stay relevant to what’s going on. The smooth jazz format has stagnated to some degree now, and the last thing I want to do is make a typical album whose only goal is being ‘radio friendly.’ I want to evolve and reflect something of substance. I had to ask myself, what’s more important, a #1 smooth jazz hit or a record that means something to me. The answer is obvious.”
Two standout tracks capture the heart and soul of what Whalum was aiming for on Roundtrip. The first is his crisp and balmy cover of “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby,” a song he wrote and originally played on the James album whose inspiration then and now is his wife of 27 years. Then there’s the Whalum family jam happening on the high spirited title track, which finds Kirk tradin’ fours with his 23 year old sax playing nephew Kenneth and his bassist son Kyle (also 23) as his Uncle “Peanuts” and brother Kevin contribute Al Jarreau-like wordless vocals.
“Concerning ‘Ruby, I remember writing that song in our little apartment on a Wurlitzer piano when we were both still in college,” Whalum says. “We have an empty nest now, but after all these years, it's nice to think I wrote this song for my girlfriend, who is now my wife and the mother of my children. I start the album even further back, with a song I never recorded that I wrote for my daughter ‘Courtney,’ who was a baby then but is now 29! It was fun finding fresh vibes for ‘Glow’ and ‘The Wave’ with Philippe and ‘Afterthought’ with Rex as well. But the real joy of this project hands down was working with the whole family. For me, this brings the trip home both literally and spiritually.
“When I hear my nephew Kenneth play and watch him soak in everything and memorize old Coltrane solos,” he adds, “I realize he’s starting on the journey I’ve been on for 36 years now. When I was his age, I was hanging out in Nice, France in James Moody’s hotel room, asking the master to show me how it’s done. If we ever get to the point where jazz is just a product to be sold, this cross-generational magic will be lost. I’m here to make sure it survives.”
Whalum purists who would rather hear his classic hits as they were done back in the day will enjoy Ultimate Kirk Whalum, a newly released Mosaic Contemporary collection of 12 gems from his career that includes the still vivacious original versions of “Desperately” and “The Wave.” The disc was compiled and produced by Matt Pierson, former VP of Jazz at Warner Bros. who guided Whalum to his greatest creative and commercial heights on that label in the late 90s.
Always willing to help out a brilliantly talented labelmate, Whalum brings his rich, urgent tenor color to the bluesy, Ramsey Lewis-styled “Juicy,” one of the best tracks on Above The Clouds, pianist and keyboardist Brian Simpson’s exuberant second release on Rendezvous. A familiar presence to genre fans for years as music director for Dave Koz and the ringleader on many of the recent popular smooth jazz cruises, Simpson broke out as a solo artist in 2005 with It’s All Good. The disc’s title track hit #1 on the Radio & Records Airplay chart and remained in the Top 5 for four months; his follow-up single “Saturday Cool” went Top 15. The first single from Above The Clouds is the similarly happy “What Cha Gonna Do?” but Simpson has a lot of more significant, deeper expressions to offer, including the title track (essentially a duet with George Duke’s vibes and mini-Moog), the haunting meditation “Memories Of You” and the soulful acoustic quartet closer “That’s Right,” featuring some parting tenor genius from the late, great Michael Brecker.
1) Lalo Schifrin & Friends (Aleph Records) – The legendary pianist and film composer — who just scored Rush Hour 3! - gets back to his traditional jazz roots with this thoughtful and vibrant, highly improvisational jam session of classics and originals with a spirited all-star ensemble of Brian Bromberg, Alex Acuna, Dennis Budumir, James Morrison and the great James Moody.
2) Suzy Bogguss, Sweet Danger (LDR Records)
3) Les Sabler, Sweet Drive (The Music Force Media Group)
4) Jim Brickman, Homecoming (SLG Music)
5) Peabo Bryson, Missing You (Peak Records)