Kirk Whalum is a Grammy-winning jazz artist who recently released The Gospel According to Jazz IV, the fourth in a documentary and music series that dates back to 1998.
Primarily a saxophonist, Whalum has had a long and distinguished career in the jazz world, including touring for seven years with Whitney Houston. He contributed the saxophone to Houston’s monster hit “I Will Always Love You”.
Whalum’s newest documentary features a number of original compositions performed by his band that included many of his family members. His band consists of people who have toured with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Bruno Mars to Billy Currington. Whalum and the band also play a few covers including a stirring version of the Foo Fighter’s “My Hero” sung by Sheléa (currently on tour with Wonder).
Recorded at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, the GATJ IV is a two disc, 19-song CD, and a DVD which intersperses the music with interviews with Whalum. We talked to Whalum about his career, his inspiration for the GATJ series, and the differences between being the frontman and playing in a band.
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SB: So what was the inspiration for the Gospel According to Jazz series?
KW: This series is something that started out of a big disappointment. I was signed to Columbia Records for 12 years which was a big deal. I realized how much it meant to me when I got dropped from the label. I was about to have my pity party when my wife said to me, “What can you do today that you couldn’t do yesterday when you were a Columbia Recording artist?”
It was a complete switch of my paradigm. And right away I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to do a series that features musicians that are not known as Gospel musicians, whether they were R&B or Jazz or whatever, playing Gospel music. Fast-forward many years and I won a Grammy for this series, and that’s very serendipitous because it came out of such a big disappointment.
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SB: How much work goes into making a documentary like this?
KW: It is a year’s worth of work. For me it’s conceptualizing the music that takes a long time. I write and arrange most of the music, and even when we cover songs I spend a lot of time reimagining those songs for this concept. As far as the directing, it’s a lot of dialogue about what this is about. It kind of falls in between the cracks. Is it Gospel? Is it Jazz? Is it both? If you listen you can see that it’s kind of an artistic statement with a spiritual core.
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SB: So what is the central message of the Gospel According to Jazz?
KW: The central message of part IV is God’s radical hospitality. God has welcomed all of His creation through this sacrificial act that the Savior Jesus has done. The door is now open, it’s no longer a matter of whether you work hard enough or if you’re good enough — that’s the Good News.
The message of the whole series has to do with instrumental music and how powerful it is. It can help make visible the invisible, to give a sonic imagery to He who is indescribable. That’s where the whole series is coming from, to introduce people to the idea that God is speaking through the language of music.
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SB: You’ve played in a band with some very famous people, most notably Whitney Houston, but you’ve also been the frontman of your own band. Which do you prefer and how do you approach your job differently depending on your role?
KW: I appreciate being able to work for people, to be able to add a spice to the gumbo. For Whitney I was the guy that was able to bring a certain spirit and soul and gospel kind of feel to what she was doing. That is a very fun thing to do. It’s important not to overdo things or make it about you because it’s not about you.
There are times for me to be out front. Frankly, half of the time I want to tell others to take the lead. It’s nice to have a band that I can pass the ball to and get out of the way. Having great special guests is beautiful.
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SB: As someone who is playing an instrument and only communicating with the audience through that medium, how do you make sure you are keeping the audience engaged?
KW: I’m constantly amazed that someone would get in their car and come hear me play. There’s a part of me that always pinches myself. This communication we do with these instruments is not just making noise, it’s a dialogue. My advice is to be authentic to who you are. Whatever influences that make you who you are and where you came from are important. It’s tempting to want to tailor the music to a given audience. You have to do some of that, but you should try your best to play it like you hear it.