Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Supreme Saxophonist

Kirk Whalum on Streisand, stars, and smooth jazz.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 10:51 AM

On Thanksgiving, give thanks for Kirk Whalum, the Memphis-born, Memphis-raised, lives-in-Memphis jazz saxophonist.

Whalum, 52, is the CEO and president of the Stax Museum and the Stax Music Academy, where they're producing future Kirk Whalums, David Porters, and Carla Thomases. He's the cover subject of the next issue of MBQ magazine, one of our sister publications. The complete interview will be out in December.

Meanwhile, here's a taste of what he had to say about some of the many jazz and pop music legends he has played with during his 30-year career. He didn't drop any of these names. That's not his style. I did, though, as throwaways at the end of our interview, and they turned out to be keepers.

Barbra Streisand: "She heard my version of 'For All We Know' and wanted me to be a part of the movie The Prince of Tides. In the studio, she sang it and I played the solo. Everybody was sort of holding their breath, because she can be a perfectionist. She looks over at me and says, 'What do you think?' Yeah, I'm a boy from Memphis sitting there in Hollywood and Barbra Streisand is asking me what I think. A moment that will live in infamy."

Whitney Houston: "When we toured together, my nickname was 'Bishop' because I did Bible studies. I remember one Bible study we did in Barcelona in my room. This particular time, we didn't have a lesson, because the Holy Spirit visited. I remember her sitting in a chair with her head in her hands just weeping. It was like she was purging the hurt and pain of riches. It was the soft underbelly of fame that most people will never know.

"I've been told that the saxophone solo that to this day has been heard by more people than any other is my solo on 'I Will Always Love You,' which she sang in the film The Bodyguard."

Luther Vandross: "He once said to me, 'You know, I don't really like the saxophone.' And you can see that in his records. There is very little saxophone."

Saxophonist Hank Crawford: "I played at Hank's funeral. His daughter and I graduated high school at Melrose. David Sanborn and Hank did an interview in Downbeat magazine, and Hank asked him who he liked of all the young guys. And David said, 'Kirk Whalum.' So Hank says, 'That's outrageous. His grandmother taught me music at Hamilton High School.'"

Al Green: "The first time I met him was in Montrose, Switzerland, at a jazz festival. Here we are on the other side of the world, and I finally meet someone who profoundly influenced me and my community. A few years ago, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland, he was on the bill and I heard him. Of all the artists at that festival, Al Green was the Man."

Jazz guitarist Larry Carlton: "He claims he was riding on the freeway in Los Angeles and heard the saxophone on a song called "After Thought." He pulls off the freeway, goes to a pay phone, and calls the deejay and says, 'Who is that?' So he sets about trying to find me, and I wound up going to L.A. and playing on his records."

Wayne Shorter and Weather Report: "I studied every note he played. In 1979, I was living in Paris and playing the streets and in the Metro. I would play 'Birdland,' and people loved it."

Jazz artist Michael Franks: "I did a couple of Christmas tours with Michael and played on one of his records too, 'I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree.' Great song, tongue-in-cheek, typical Michael Franks satire. He lives on a farm and is a very quiet guy. In concert, you're playing off the energy of everybody else onstage, that's just how it works. Michael's energy is not giving you anything back. That's his shtick, that's his style. It was always fun."

Kirk Whalum and smooth jazz: "You have to be who you are. And for me, that's part of Aretha Franklin, Hank Crawford, and 'Oh Happy Day' by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. This is my reality. And for that matter, Nat Cole and Chaka Khan and all of that. So I'm happy with where I am. And I think the really smart critics, even jazz purists, know that is a legitimate and beautiful expression."

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