Kirk Whalum’s saxophone sound is one of the cornerstones of contemporary jazz. He’s collaborated with many artists and has made his mark in the worlds of gospel, jazz and R&B. I just learned that he is President/CEO of the STAX Music Academy and the STAX Museum of American Soul Music. For that alone, he’s ‘the man’ in my eyes.

For this, his 19th album as leader, he has teamed up with his brother Kevin – a vocalist with great subtlety and feeling - to create a tribute to the 1963 album “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”. The first six songs from “Romance Language” are re-takes of the 1963 record’s only six songs. OK, history lesson over, what do we have here to enjoy?

Irving Berlin’s ‘They Say it’s Wonderful’ glides in with Kevin Whalum’s dark brown voice and the smokiness of Kirk’s tenor horn. The balance is beautifully judged. This is the tenderest of ballads and it’s music that you can only write and play from the heart. ‘Dedicated to You’, with its sexy brass and flute intro, takes you deeper into that romantic mood. The sax solo really is timeless and would have sounded as good fifty years ago as it does now. Usually statements like that are made the other way around – but you get the idea… Just lovely.

‘My One and Only Love’ is one of my favourite love songs and rarely, if ever, leaves me with dry eyes. This version certainly does not! The gentle Latin sway, the whisper of acoustic guitar and the Whalum brothers underplaying it all really tugs at the heartstrings. I’ve heard a few versions of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’, mostly instrumentals, but this vocal version is slow, soulful and utterly sublime. A smoky electric piano and that voice – it’s all you need to get you into this gem. Then when the strings come in and a very Stan Getz style tenor solo follows - it’s all over. Resistance is futile!

There’s an altogether more modern feel to ‘You Are Too Beautiful’ with a nice thumbed (not slapped) bass and a snare that cracks just enough to get your head moving. Smooth jazz/NAC radio should be playing this like crazy, especially around the planned February 14th release date. With some subtle flute ‘stabs’ and keyboards, this is really ‘quiet storm’ gold. The sultry ‘Autumn Serenade’ is a walk on a faraway beach – somewhere exotic. Michael ‘Nomad’ Ripoll’s acoustic guitar on this song brings that last touch of brilliance as Whalum switches to soprano sax and gets smouldering.

The first of the new songs, ‘Almost Doesn’t Count’ features the emotive vocal of Kirk and Kevin’s uncle Hugh. If I can sing like that when I’m 83 (you read that right), I’ll be a very happy man. The sax has an almost gospel intensity – and the organ just reinforces the point. Surprising and delightful! As soon as I heard the finger pops on ‘I Wish I Wasn’t’ I felt I was listening to a smash hit – don’t ask me why. The chord changes are so sexy on this soulful instrumental. Organ and guitar play their part to keep the pot boiling – though it never boils over. It’s an exercise in control.

The flute intro to ‘I Wanna Know’ will remind you of Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’ and will make you smile – as the whole song will in fact. Radio heaven and the background vocals will please the R&B crowd. A very sexy song. The gospel intro to ‘Spend my Life with You’ and the song’s easy pace (not to mention its subject matter) make this a perfect wedding song for me. The tenor also sounds like a voice on this song – and I think that’s something I’ve overlooked on some other songs on this set – I’ve been so dazzled by the human voices.

What can I say, people? If you like Kirk Whalum’s soulful sound, you’ll love this. If you love vocals that make you focus on great lyrics, you’ll love this. If you love romantic music, you’ll love this. If you admire production that gives great songs all they need to shine, you’ll love this.

Trust me, you’ll love it!


Find out more about Kirk and his new record here – release date 14th February 2012
Visit the Rendezvous Music site

Rendezvous Music REN5148 – Producers – Kirk Whalum and John Stoddart