Kirk Whalum, the jazzy jack of all trades, will headline downtown festival

By John Benson

For decades, Grammy Award-winning artist Kirk Whalum has been trying to lose the smooth-jazz title.

Perhaps it’s safe to say the tenor saxophonist has achieved his goal of late with 2010’s “The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter III” and 2011’s “Romance Language.” Now the musician with many hats is proud of his latest work with Brown-Whalum-Braun (BWB), which recently released the Michael Jackson tribute “Human Nature.”

“We’ve been getting pretty amazing reviews,” said Whalum, calling from Memphis, Tenn. “We were a little nervous of being sort of karaoke, just lame versions of these songs, so we put a lot of effort to make sure the arrangements spoke highly of Michael from a jazz point of view. We left room for improvisation. So the interplay is what really makes for the spontaneous moments. It came out really well.”

Whalum, who in his 30-plus year career collaborated with Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, Barbara Streisand and Whitney Houston, pointed to his favorite “Human Nature” songs. This includes “Beat It” and “Who’s Loving You.” The former is an improvisational jam, while the latter became a “blues tour de force.”

Fans may get to hear some of the Jackson tunes Sunday night when Whalum performs at the Youngtown Jazz Festival, downtown.

“Now I have 30 records, and we’ll be pulling from as many of those as we can,” Whalum said. “And for sure my brother Kevin will help me. With ‘Romance Language,’ which is kind of a duet record, we sort of re-imagined the classic John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman record. So we’ll for sure do some of that. My brother is also featured on ‘Gospel According to Jazz,’ so we will have fans who will absolutely demand certain songs like ‘Falling in Love with Jesus.’”

Even though Whalum is an ordained minister, the 11-time Grammy Award-nominee stresses his shows are secular based, which creates a unique environment for his music.

“It’s interesting; we kind of get away with murder in a sense because we’re able to play these gospel songs to a very broad audience,” Whalum said. “It’s not a worship service or a heavy-handed religious thing. This is more about us being true to ourselves with something people love.”

Being true to himself is almost a rallying cry of late for Whalum, who after years in the industry says he’s found his comfort zone. This explains why he’s been so busy pursuing different styles of music with impunity.

“In a sort of narcissistic kind of way, you want to get it all out there,” Whalum said. “I started out in gospel playing in church and then went straight for the traditional jazz thing studying Coltrane and Charlie Parker. So my trajectory included a lot of things. Now having moved back to Memphis, I’m all about trying to go back to all of those places and also get it all out. I think what happens when you turn 50, which was almost five years, you start going ‘Wait a minute.’ I’m trying to do this, and this and this. You want to sort of get it all done.”

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