Legendary saxophonist Kirk Whalum gets groovy in his upcoming jazz album

Legendary saxophonist Kirk Whalum performing on stage.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“I appreciate jazz for sure,” says legendary American saxophonist Kirk Whalum, with a touch of irony on the month-long celebration of the heritage and history of the musical genre, that is held globally every April.

“At the turn of the 20th century, jass, as it was then known, was a derogatory word used to refer to musicians playing in the brothels. The fact that this genre incubated in those places of ill repute is a precious thing,” explains Whalum during an interview with the BDLife via Zoom on April 24, 2024, from his studio in Memphis Tennessee.

“The footprint of jazz is a paradox. It is kind of marginalised because it is one of the genres that is not esteemed along the Taylor Swift or Drake type of artists. But when you zoom in and see all the thousands of people that love this music, it is very uplifting,” says Whalum who is best remembered for playing the sax solo on Whitney Houston’s global hit, I’ll Always Love You in 1992.

“I play to hundreds of people and big audiences at jazz festivals. It is a very respectable genre. I am 65 and I am still making my living doing my music, man! I am the number one appreciator of jazz,” says Whalum ahead of the release of Epic Cool, his first album in more than five years.

His last album Humanitè featured a global supporting cast of musicians including Kenyan percussionist Kasiva Mutua, keyboardist Aaron Rimbui and South African singer Zahara who died in December 2023.

“I sat in this studio and I am talking to Zahara on WhatsApp and she’s calling me “Dad”. Her death is a reminder that we are only here for a season and only God determines how long that season is. To this day I can’t believe that she is gone.”

Whalum established a connection with the music community in Kenya when he performed at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival in 2016 and 2018.

“I am there (in Nairobi) every Thursday morning because I teach saxophone and jazz theory via Zoom to a student at the Ghetto Classics in Korogocho called Elvis Otieno. I have such expectations of him because in the future he is going to be such a force not just in music, but overall, in life.”

On the new album, he partners with the Swiss-Nigerian pianist, composer, producer, and songwriter Greg Manning whom he first met as a keyboardist in South African artist Jonathan Butler’s band. “He is European and yet he has an African soul,” explains Whalum.

“Just as in the Bible where the musicians were in front when troops went to war, it is the same right now with African creatives carving the path for the continent’s reawakening. You can’t turn on any music venue or streaming service and not hear an African artist or music that is directly influenced or sampled from African music,” he says.

Legendary saxophonist Kirk Whalum performing on stage.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

There are 11 songs on the album which were composed and recorded within a year, spanning the touchstones of the artiste’s smooth jazz repertoire. “A buddy of mine listened to one of the songs and he said, “Man! This is epic cool” and I named that song Epic Cool and then the whole record became epic cool. The energy is still there, that has not changed. The real cool is vintage, here we are in our 60s and we still here coming up with new things that are groovy.”

He compares the first single Bah-De-Yah to speed gliding through the milestones in his life, including playing alongside his “boss” Whitney Houston for more than seven years, and standing onstage with Nelson Mandela as apartheid was brought to an end. “There are also challenges and loss and regrets along the way but; I am sailing over them and enjoying the ride and being grateful for this journey.”

Pillow Talk, according to Whalum, is the strongest song he’s written in 20 years “After the producer sent me the structure, I just played the melody that came to me at that moment. You seldom get a mystical connection with the framework of a song that just lays it out for you to add the melody.”

Crusaderation pays tribute to one of his main influences, the Crusaders, the legendary band known for their fusion of jazz, R&B, and blues. It was among the songs that Whalum wrote seven years ago for his mother Helen’s 80th birthday and his band will perform the song for the first time in a live set during Dave Koz and Friends at Sea, a two-week voyage through Greece, Malta and Sicily, starting April 30, 2024.

The track features Whalum’s son Kyle, a bassist who plays in the house bands for top US TV programmes, The Voice and The Kelly Clarkson Show and his nephews, Kameron (who tours with Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak) on trombone and tenor saxophonist Kenneth III who is a successful solo artist.

Epic Cool by Kirk Whalum will be officially released across all digital music platforms on May 17, 2024.

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