Kirk Whalum


For nearly four decades, Grammy ® Award-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum has helped to define “cool,” whether blazing trails in contemporary jazz or infusing hits by Luther Vandross or Whitney Houston with an extra jolt of soul. Few have ascended to such heights in the jazz or R&B worlds, but Whalum is not one to simply relax and enjoy his lofty perch. On his latest album, Epic Cool, he raises the bar once again, scaling up the hipness, vitality, soulfulness and vibes to a monumental new level. “I’m still on this path trying to do something important,” Whalum insists. “At 65, I still feel very young. I feel like I have a mandate to be the very best version ofmyself and to push down some more doors.”

That life encompasses more than 25 albums under Whalum’s own name, including a Grammy-nominated collaboration with pianist Bob James; his faith-and-soul melding Gospel According to Jazzseries; and a trio of albums with the super group BWB, alongside guitarist Norman Brown and trumpeter Rick Braun. That’s in addition to his work alongside everyone from the late Joey DeFrancesco to such legends as Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, and Larry Carlton. To achieve that goal Whalum partnered with Swiss-Nigerian producer/songwriter Greg Manning, whom he first encountered as a keyboardist with guitarist Jonathan Butler.

“He’s European and yet he has an African soul,” Whalum says. “I wanted him to bring his classical training together with his understanding of traditional jazz for this project. Plus, he’s an incredible melody-smith.” That’s evident from the outset of Epic Cool with the instantly memorable hook Manning composed for opening track “Bah-De-Yah!” As the chanted titlesuggests, there’s a thrilling dose of Earth, Wind & Fire funk gracing the track, which spurs Whalum to some of his most melodic soloing. That voice was what attracted Vandross so strongly to Whalum’s playing, despite the fact that the singer once admitted that he didn’t particularly care for the saxophone.

“I said, ‘Man, that’s cold,’” Whalum recalls with a laugh. “But then Luther said, ‘But I like you because you play like a singer.’ And he went further–he said, ‘You play like I sing.’ Greg was all about highlighting that gift and giving people a melody that they can wrap their hearts around.”

Manning also instigated the finger-snapping sultriness of “Pillow Talk” and the soaring ballad “Through the Storm,” representing the full spectrum of romance from intimate moments to life-altering challenges. The inspiring “Through the Storm” becomes an ode to Ruby, Whalum’s wife of more than 40 years, and the hardships they’ve overcome together. Manning receives solo credit for “You &Sunday Morning,” which is both spiritual and soulful in keeping with Whalum’s dedication to faith and family on that traditional day off.“Crusaderation” pays tribute to one of Whalum’s key influences, the Jazz Crusaders, whose storied history came to an end roughly a decade ago with the passing of Joe Sample, Wayne Henderson and Wilton Felder. Their importance to Whalum is reflected in the very special line-up for the track–the rare convergence of the saxophonist’s musical family, including son Kyle on bass and nephews Kameron on trombone and Kenneth III on tenor.

All three bring a solid foundation from the pop world–Kameron tours with Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak, Kenneth is a successful solo artist who has worked with Beyoncé and Kanye West, and Kyle plays in the house bands for The Voice and The Kelly Clarkson Show. “The Crusaders changed the game,” Whalum posits. “My family really knew how to capture the essence of those guys and that sound with that song.” The tender “Kori” is dedicated to Whalum’s daughter, lovingly depicting the special relationship between father and daughter even as the latter brings up children of her own. “Love & Healing” and “MF” go out to the members of Whalum’s other family, his stellar band. One meaning of the latter is obvious, but it’s also the initials of Whalum’s longtime drummer, Marcus Finnie.

That both meanings are apt becomes obvious on the tune’s sharp, funky groove. “Love &Healing” is written by and features the vocals of singer/guitarist Andréa Lisa, who first joined Whalum as one of the guests on the saxophonist’s globe-spanning2019 album Humanité. The South African-born, New Zealand-raised talent has since relocated to the States and become a core part of Whalum’s working band. Introduced by a snippet of dialogueà la Française, Whalum’s “Film Noir” tips its fedora to both his cinematic tastes and his transformative two-year tenure living in Paris. Both the title track and bassist Andrew Ford’s “Well Alright” are sheer celebration. “Epic Cool” is unique in headlining Whalum’s agility on the hefty baritone sax, which delves deep while moving with a graceful swagger. “WellAlright” is centered on a sing along chorus that echoes the interactive, crowd-friendly songs of Donny Hathaway or Cannonball Adderley and Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” The spectrum of emotions and invigorating grooves can only be achieved with a65-year trove of experience and passion. Whalum brings those elements to every song on this album, whether exploring love or faith, journeys or struggles, family or life on the road. All shine through Whalum’s stellar soul–on an epic level.

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