The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter III
For yours is the kingdom, the victory and the majesty, the power and dominion, for all that is in heaven and earth are yours…1 Chronicles 29:11a
On October 13, 2007, at Reid Temple AME Church on the outskirts of Washington DC, a standing room only audience packed the 3000-plus capacity state-of-the-art worship complex to experience the transforming power of Kirk Whalum’s The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter III. Recorded live by three generations of Whalums and some of the most resounding names in jazz, pop, gospel and r&b, The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter III comes ten years after the first chart-topping Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter I CD debuted, and in the wake of the Grammy nominated, Stellar Award winning second chapter, released in 2002.
The two-disk set, plus DVD, is the most expansive in the series in terms of sheer minutes of music, 118.35 to be exact, but also in terms of content and concept. From the first plaintive note in “Call to Worship,” it is clear that this will be far more than an extension or installment of what came before. Kirk Whalum and company blow the roof off with subtlety, nuance, inspired performances and a message of faith, hope and love that both encompasses and transcends every point on the musical compass.
The accompanying DVD makes the most of Whalum the philosopher, theologian and theorist, with film director Jim Hanon (End of The Spear; and Miss HIV, for which Kirk wrote the soundtrack) capturing him as he weaves the story of jazz, gospel, the blues (verbally and instrumentally) in candid shots interposed with concert footage.
Although Whalum—who lives up to his reputation as “the most influential saxophonist of his generation”—is front and center throughout, this is undoubtedly an ensemble recording. He shares the stage with what could be called the ‘Whalum dynasty’ (three generations and six Whalums: brother Kevin (vocals); Uncle Peanuts (vocals, sax, and piano); son, Kyle (electric bass); nephews Kenneth III (saxophone) and Kortland (vocals), plus first cousin Caleb tha Bridge (vocals/rap). The unparalleled George Duke, featured on both I and II, returns on keys, and is joined by vocalist Lalah Hathaway, guitarist Doc Powell, keyboardist/vocalist John Stoddart, trumpeter/vocalist Aaron Broadus, stand-up bassist, Reginald Veal, percussionist Lenny Castro and Kirk’s former bandmate, drummer Sean McCurley.
The renowned gospel/r&b writer and producer Jerry Peters once again brings his prodigious talent, sharing credits with Whalum on two songs and also as album co-producer, along with Kirk and Hal Sacks, the latter has served as engineer for all three GATJ live recordings. “My father loved James Cleveland and Jerry brought that sensibility, as well as playing the B3 organ.”
But “gospel” in the radio/church sense is only whispered or suggested. The range of material is reflected in its creators/writers—from Whalum, himself, and son Kyle, to Charlie Chaplin, Diane Warren, Isaiah Jones and Frankie Beverly, among others. This genre-and-time-spanning array of songwriting is the perfect backdrop for Whalum’s seemingly endless expression. His signature r&b-inflected jazz, rich with romance and melodic power, imbued with blues, funk, pop, Latin and world music is solidly present, but on songs like Ananias and Sapphira, we see the more adventurous Whalum. As he describes it, “The song is definitely avant garde; we go into deep improvisation. This isn’t a good groove and some licks, this is where we go somewhere.” And where he goes is in the direction of Elvin Jones, Coltrane and Henderson. Not only does Whalum pull out all the stops on this sobering nod to God’s holiness and power, but Reginald Veal is a standout on upright, as he turns his bass into a sitar and plucks out a driving percussive and intricate melody.
Whalum is on a mission not just to share the Good News of the Gospel, but to expand it far beyond the walls of the church and traditionally accepted ways of communicating the message, and jazz is the medium. Whalum’s God is a lot bigger and the music that glorifies him is as limitless, transcendent, unexpected and powerful as He is. “How can you describe the indescribable?” queries Whalum. “That’s an opportunity for jazz and other creative arts. I wanted to make sure there were moments where it was ethereal, avant garde—that’s something that’s missing in the genre we call gospel. It needs to go where it is more ‘art music,’ It’s not just in your face, but, rather, the music provokes one to deeper contemplation about the Savior, and sin, and the truth. Jazz is very much underused in that sense.”
Whalum purposely included songs and featured guests that are not traditionally thought of as “gospel” or Christian with stunning affect. George Duke offers up one of the performances of a lifetime on Diane Warren’s “Because You Love Me.” Its shimmering elegance and delicacy, punctuated by the occasional and unexpected gospel chord, lifts worship to new heights as a love song becomes an ascendant instrumental prayer.
Lalah Hathaway, again, not your usual suspect, brings a depth of meaning and opulent warmth to the bluesy, “It’s What I Do,” and to Luther Vandross’ & Nat Adderley’s “Make Me a Believer.” The latter performed as a duet with Kirk’s brother Kevin who adapted the lyrics, transforms a sensual love song into a conversation with the Father.” On “He’s Been Just That Good,” Hathaway makes giving thanks infectiously addicting, and her nuanced performance of bonus track “The Thrill is Gone.” is sure to raise an “Amen.”
The album’s other bonus track is a post-concert recording of “You Are Everything,” reprising the concert version with spoken-word, featuring Bishop T.D Jakes and his wife Serita in the steamiest performance by a minister and his wife since King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs. “I love that it’s kind of controversial; it makes people think.” comments Whalum. “It’s romantic and once I got over that it’s T.D. Jakes and he sounds like Barry White, I loved that’s where he went with it.”
In the age of boundaries and emotional transparency, the admonitions that come from Kirk’s Uncle Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum in his smooth take on Chaplin’s classic “Smile”—he offers both lead vocals and accompanies himself on piano—could befuddle the Gospel purist, even though a merry heart is encouraged in scripture. But when paired in a medley with Isaiah Thomas’s “God Has Smiled On Me,” the truth of God’s eternal smile toward mankind, in spite of His breaking heart over man’s inhumanity to man, reflects a deeper theme.
Peanuts, who is only one of the artists deserving much wider recognition on this project, also joins Whalum and nephew Kenneth on “Fit To Battle” for a swinging triple tenor sax tour de force, backed only by McCurley and Castro, that shakes the walls and brings down the house at Reid Temple. Whalum says it “was inspired by the original, raw, pre-Negro Spiritual rhythmic energy. The experience was absolutely incredible. I’m flanked by two generations of Whalums, Peanuts who is now 80, and my nephew Kenneth, 25. He’s playing with Jay-Z, Maxwell, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige and Regina Belle and doing what I was doing with Whitney, and what Peanuts did with Nat King Cole. It was really humbling. The fact that it was just us with the drums, I thought, ‘If we can get over with this, connect with the people…’ and sure enough, everyone loved it.”
Whalum is acutely aware that there is a risk in including so many members of one’s family. But this is the kind of nepotism that pays off for both those in the audience and onstage. Kirk’s brother Kevin is not only a perfect match for the smooth stylings of Ms. Hathaway, but he brings the humor and subtlety of a Michael Franks and the expressive creativity of Bobby McFerrin. Kevin and Kirk play off each other on John Stoddart’s delightfully danceable Afro-Caribbean invitation to prayer, “If You Ever Need Me” with intricate solos by McCurley and Castro. Ranging from silky smooth to eloquent sound-sculpting and steamy scatting on Frankie Beverly’s “Running Away,” Kevin creates a dramatic conversation successively with Duke, Kyle, and Castro as they respond instrumentally in a language that needs no translation.
Whalum’s cousin Caleb tha Bridge encourages, describes, exhorts and prays for Africa in a rap that manages to mention almost every nation on that continent, with an infectious and simple chorus that is both a blessing and a prayer in “AFRICA JESUS AFRICA.” As Whalum reflects, “Africa really responded to The Gospel According to Jazz and we thought that this was an opportunity to bless them back.”
One of the night’s particular blessings was the father and son penned “Rev,” written to honor Kirk’s father and Kyle’s grandfather. Like all blues and much of gospel and r&b, there is a bittersweet story underlying the unfettered and emotionally powerful music of The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter III. The project is dedicated to Kirk Whalum’s father, the Reverend Kenneth T. Whalum, Sr., who suffered a stroke just before the recording, and died later in October. The album attests to the obvious legacy the Rev has left behind in his children and grandchildren. In a profound way, he reflects the spirit of The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter III: expansive, inclusive, but securely anchored to the Word of God without compromise or apology.
Whalum has always charted the initial inspiration for The Gospel According To Jazz series back to Memphis where he was born, and to his father’s church choir. “If you think about how I got started, it was the live gospel instrumental experience there in my home church where my dad was pastor.” The R&B, blues, pop and jazz that imbue Kirk’s expression are obviously part of the Memphis legacy and Kirk made the jazz connection when he was in high school. He received a music scholarship from Texas Southern University in Houston, where he formed his own band, playing original compositions on the Texas club circuit.
After opening for Bob James in Houston one night in 1984, Whalum was invited to New York by the celebrated pianist to appear on his album 12. Whalum signed with Columbia shortly thereafter, releasing five albums for the label: Floppy Disk, in 1985, And You Know That (1988), The Promise (1989), Caché (1993) and In This Life (1995). While still there, he collaborated with Bob James on the 1996 Warner Bros. release Joined At the Hip, which won Kirk his first Grammy nomination.
In ’97, Whalum signed to Warner Bros. Records and released his solo debut for the label, Colors. It was during that transitional time between labels that The Gospel According to Jazz concept gained steam and the first GATJ was released in October of 1998. In 2000, Whalum released Hymns in the Garden, which received a Grammy nomination for best Pop Instrumental Album. Unconditional, also released that year, generated three Grammy nominations over two years for Pop Instrumental (2001 and 2002) and Pop Instrumental Album (2001). Unconditional captured the No. 1 spot on the Jazz Charts, his fourth album to do so, and also generated a No. 1 radio hit, “Now ’Til Forever.” In 2002, The Gospel According To Jazz, Chapter II and The Christmas Message were released ultimately garnering two more Grammy nominations. His last album on the Warner label Into My Soul (2003) took Kirk back to his Memphis roots.
Transitioning to Rendezvous Entertainment, he released Kirk Whalum Performs the Babyface Songbook in 2005 and Roundtrip in 2007, both catapulting to No. 2 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Charts, the latter garnering him his eighth Grammy nomination this year.
In the course of his career he has graced the recordings and stage performances of the pre-eminent vocalists, instrumental artists and soundtracks of our time, including supplying the stunning sax solo on “I Will Always Love You,” performed by Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. Whalum has lent his lyrical phrasing and melodic artistry to Babyface, Luther Vandross, Nancy Wilson, George Benson, Bebe & Cece Winans, Barbara Streisand, Vince Gill, Michael McDonald, and Quincy Jones, among many others, with well over a hundred recordings to his credit. Because of his love for working with young musicians, his most meaningful accomplishment thus far is his recent appointment as the first artist in residence at Stax Music Academy in Memphis and, subsequently, the Varnell Artist In Residence at Memphis Theological Seminary.
God has definitely graced Whalum, and that sentiment is reflected in what is really the only remotely traditional sounding “gospel” song on The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter III. “He’s Been Just That Good.” It is ironic that the most gospel-centric of the three-projects, the most missional and evangelical in the best sense of the word has the least gospel intonations in terms of arrangement, sensibility and style. Whalum says, “I was determined to go further towards the word jazz. It’s such a big word. Between each song I’m talking about what is jazz, how does it relate to God as creator and improviser.”
The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter III, in all its breath and breadth, plaintive wailing saxophones, deep and rich harmonies, sensual romance, delightful humor, artful space, and awesome beauty tells HIS story in a way no other music can. The Gospel According to jazz is good news, indeed.