Interview with Kirk Whalum

Gospel jazz is seen a surge in popularity over the past several years, thanks in no small part to innovative projects such as Kirk Whalum’s Gospel According to Jazz from 1998.

Kirk Whalum with Kyle Whalum With the release of Whalum’s second album in that series upon us, we took some time to dig a little bit into the the saxophone’s perspective on several issues pertaining to the new project, and to Gospel jazz in general.

Here is the discussion that Gospelflava.com had with Kirk Whalum.

Gospelflava.com: Jazz often being a wordless medium, have you seen God work through Gospel jazz to touch someone who would otherwise not have understood the spoken Word (or the sung Word)?

Kirk Whalum: Yes, I've seen God work through gospel jazz in an amazing way at The Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland. It's a privilege to carry the message of the gospel in its non-verbal form. It's a very big responsibility and it puts you more on a universal level because people who speak different languages are able to receive a blessing on a deeper level.

Gospelflava.com: Where does Gospel According to Jazz Chapter 2 fit with respect to the first album you did back in 1998? Do you consider it to be a natural outflow of the first album, or is it something other than that?

Album Review
CD The project unfolds with an innovative musical interpretation of "John 1:1". Kirk Whalum soars his saxophone to heaven's heights, accompanied by choir singing the inexplicable beauty of the profound scriptural text found in the opening verses of the Gospel of John...

See full album review.

Kirk Whalum: Chapter 2 definitely follows up on Chapter 1, both stylistically and from the stand-point of our perceived mission. The free exploration of the many varied colors of jazz is the joy behind both records. The mission or least one of them, is to impact the hearts of jazz fans with the message of the gospel. Our sub-mission is to raise a standard of excellence for young gospel musicians.

Gospelflava.com: You have surrounded yourself with some of today's most respected session players and Gospel musicians, including George Duke, Paul Jackson Jr., Jerry Peters and Tyrone Dickerson. Can you describe the importance of having a team that you are comfortable with, not only musically, but spiritually? And how that impacts on the listener?

Kirk Whalum: Being on one accord has been fundamental in the ability to allow the Great Musician to play through this group of musicians who believe like I do. In this scenario it makes for very focused and powerful ministry.

Gospelflava.com: Those who are familiar with your work, and in particular your Gospel jazz projects, recognize the fact that your brother Kevin is an incredible jazz vocalist. You have included him again in Gospel According To Jazz Chapter 2, but you have also introduced us to your son Kyle, who tears into the bass.

Kirk Whalum: Kyle is unique in that his world view as well as his personal ambitions are centered around serving Christ, athough he's a teenager, in the traditional connotation of the word!. I celebrate the direction that he's already going in. For example, by touring and recording with the likes of Nicole C. Mullen —an artist whom I respect immensely because of her sincere walk with Christ. Kyle is experiencing real ministry and music at the same time.

Kirk Whalum, Kyle Whalum and Kevin WhalumKevin's style of singing is breaking down man-made barriers of stylistic restrictions. Much like Thomas Dorsey, the controversy that Kevin's style engenders is bringing people closer to the real questions at hand: is it about the style of music or the heart and lifestyle of the musician? Gospelflava.com: Was there any particularly memorable or standout moment for you during the live recording session?

Kirk Whalum: One memorable moment, for me, was when Jonathan Butler sang "Falling In Love With Jesus" and looked back at both the drummer and percussionist and they were lifting their hands in praise, in spite of the cameraman staring them in the face. It was then, that I got a feel of the potential impact of this project.

Gospelflava.com: The song "Ta Ta You Jesus" has the obvious connection with "Ta Ta You Baby". There are some who sometimes have some difficulties in hearing a 'gospel cover' of a popular song, due to a struggle to get beyond the song's original meaning. What is your perspective on this issue?

Kirk Whalum: In our minds "TaTa" is more directed towards people who don't have that struggle, who were either not familiar with the prior incarnation of that song, or who welcome the message more so than questioning the propriety of the vehicle.

Gospelflava.com: You sometimes refer to some music theory / technical aspects of your work, and integrate them into your expression of worship in your musical. For example, you have stated that the 7/4 time of the opening cut "John 1:1" is important, since the number 7 is a Kirk Whalum representative of God and of completion. Can you elaborate a little on some other, perhaps little-appreciated musical aspects such as this that are important or can play a role on a spiritual level?

Kirk Whalum: One aspect of this music that I personally celebrate is the diversity of cultural influences that it represents. To be able to tap resources from, for example, Cuban culture through Luiz Conte, and at the same time African-American culture and its musical heritage and specific forms through Paul Jackson, Jr. and George Duke, is significant.

Another interesting detail is the mutual root system shared by both Gospel and R&B. That is evident in a song like "Ta Ta You Jesus."

Gospelflava.com: As a musician, what areas provide the most challenge for you, whether that be technical aspects or something else?

Kirk Whalum: The most challenging area for me is, making time to practice. I always tell young musicians to practice now while you can. Because as busy as you think you are now, it's only going to get worse.

Gospelflava.com: Who would you like to work with in future endeavors?

Kirk Whalum: Pastor Andrae Crouch, Monty Alexander and Cyrus Chestnut.

Be sure to spend some significant time with Kirk Whalum's latest creation, Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter 2. There's lots more to dig into too, not only from Whalum (Grammy-nominated Hymns in the Garden, The Christmas Message), but also from numerous other rising Gospel saxophone players. Check out more in our overview of recent Gospel saxophone projects.

interview by Stan North

  All content in GospelFlava copyright 2002. No information to be reprinted or re-broadcast from this site without the expressed written consent of GospelFlava.com. All rights reserved.

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