“Music is the language that communicates across borders. Music can break and enter into a person’s soul. The difference is a musician is not there to take, he’s there to give, to leave something.”
Grammy® Award Winner and Global Recording Artist Kirk Whalum is ruminating on exactly when his eyes were opened to the big, beautiful world beyond his cloistered boyhood in Memphis, Tennessee. There, the minister’s son spent most of his time surrounded by family and friends, soaking up the soulful spirituality he found in gospel music in church. But inside, he knew he had the heart of a wanderer.
“I was 19 and I got a scholarship to study in Paris. I lived with a French family for three months,” he says. “It changed my life – my world was essentially blown open. I told my girlfriend Ruby (now his wife), “Baby, we are so gonna live in this place someday.”
It took Kirk a while to make good on that promise. In the early 1980s, he headed to Houston, Texas, where the gifted saxophonist quickly made his mark in the burgeoning nightclub scene. Fusing together elements of gospel, blues and jazz, he developed his distinctive tenor sound – soul-drenched, emotional and always highly melodic.
Kirk made the leap from sideman to bandleader, eventually joining forces with legendary jazz keyboardist Bob James, a touring and recording collaboration that led to five albums, including his first #1 record and a GRAMMY® nomination. From there, it was off to Los Angeles, where he became an in-demand session player for top artists including Barbra Streisand, Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones and most notably, Whitney Houston.
Kirk’s solo on Whitney’s mega-hit “I Will Always Love You” made his sound familiar to untold millions and he spent seven years touring the world with the late superstar. When it was over, Kirk finally made good on that long-ago promise to Ruby. He and his wife sold all their possessions and whisked their four children off to live in Paris.
“That was the genesis of me being open to experiencing the world in a bigger way,” he muses.
Kirk, now a headlining solo artist, began touring the world, performing at the major international music festivals. It was around this time the seed was planted in his mind for what would grow into his latest album, Humanité.
“I kept bumping into these amazing artists from all over the world and I wanted to make some crazy music with them and prove this point – that we are all one,” says Kirk. “That’s the DNA of it. Like we say in the artwork, ‘With one voice, sometimes with words, we speak.’ This is the essential reality of being a world musician.”
Humanité is unlike any album Kirk has ever made – the synergistic result of encounters made and relationships formed onstage and off with some of the finest recording artists from all over the world.
Kirk’s collaborators on the album include Japanese jazz pianist Keiko Matsui, the young bass phenomenon Barry Likumahuwa, gifted singer/songwriter Grace Sahertian and global pop star singer/actor Afgan, all hailing from Indonesia; vocalist/guitarist Zahara, one of South Africa’s biggest stars; Kasiva Mutwa of Nairobi; and the veteran UK jazz vocalist Liane Carroll, long considered by cognoscenti as one of the finest voices in the genre.
Over a period of three months in 2018, Kirk and his longtime friend and producer, the British jazz trumpeter and session musician James McMillan, recorded tracks in locations ranging from studios in Jakarta, Tokyo, Paris, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Hastings, to hotel rooms, office buildings and even Kirk’s living room in Memphis.
According to Kirk, language and cultural barriers faded away once the playing and improvisation began. As he sees it, music serves the same purpose all over the world for both artists and their audiences – a universal form of communication to share emotion and tell stories, but most especially to “enable liberation and freedom of expression.”
Kirk was just 9 years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis just blocks away from the Whalum family home. That shattering event shaped young Kirk’s worldview. But rather than turn him cynical, as he grew older his spiritual upbringing led him to embrace Dr. King’s vision of “The Beloved Community” – the greater good inherent in all of global humanity will lead to a society based on justice, civil rights and love of one’s fellow humans.
This loomed large in Kirk’s mind as he approached both the making of Humanité and the feature length companion documentary “Humanité: The Beloved Community,” shot in Tokyo, Jakarta, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Hastings and Memphis by director Jim Hanon. The film, woven from the words, stories and original melodies of the diverse cast of artists featured on the album, channels the ethos of civil rights in a raw and compassionate tale of harmony in a divisive world.
“People are normally afraid of what is outside of their culture, but we as musicians say, “Hey man, let’s mix this stuff up! Jazz is freedom of expression, communication of love, excitement, passion. Humanité is about identifying that beautiful thing that draws us all together and that causes us not to be afraid.”
“In America, music has always served to enfranchise the disenfranchised,” he says. “It works the same way in other countries. You see the same dynamic. Collaboration can be insurgency. And music is above language, above borders – it serves as a tool to fight oppression everywhere.”
Standout tracks that showcase the album’s harmonious mix of American jazz, blues, funk, pop along with global indigenous musical forms abound on Humanité. Kirk makes particular note of a few:
“Korogocho” featuring bassists Marcus Miller and Barry Likumahuwa: This high velocity fusion track features Kirk’s smoothly melodic soprano sax and highly technical dueling bass solos by internationally renowned jazz master Marcus Miller and the young Indonesian virtuoso who grew up listening to him.
“When I wrote the song, I envisioned Marcus playing on it. And it was beautiful, he really brought it to life. But in the meantime, I had met Barry at the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta – one of the nice things they do at festivals is pair an American artist with an artist from another country. I thought, ‘Wow, this cat is BAD!” His playing really connected with me on a spiritual level. And so, the piece came together with the idea of dueling bass players. Barry was just blown away, he was like “Oh wow, I’m dueling with Marcus Miller!” And Marcus – well, he dug it, of course.”
“Get Your Wings Up” featuring guitarist/vocalist Andréa Lisa: A gorgeous contemporary jazz/R&B track with an uplifting message and soaring melody – a clear product of Andréa’s extensive grounding in the American soul and R&B she grew up listening to in the family home, first in her native South Africa and later in New Zealand, where she has lived since the age of 8.
“Andréa is a great musician, but she’s also an amazing writer. After she and I met, she said she was really hot on the idea of coming to the States. She ended up coming to my house in Memphis. She played the song for me and I was blown away. She tells a story about it: Her mom used to tell her, ‘You’re so busy trying to get everybody else up and flying, you need to make sure you’re in flight first before you can help everybody.”
Kirk recorded Andréa’s song with just his sax and her guitar, backed only by a click track. She added her vocal, Kirk supplied some additional vocal parts and he then took it to England to producer James McMillan’s studio to add the rhythm section (“mostly African musicians living in the UK,” he notes.)
“It’s maybe not the best way to make music, but if the musicians can feel where you’re coming from, you just plug in and it’s there.”
“Wake Up Everybody” featuring Afgan: A silky ballad about the power of education and enlightenment to awaken and transform the world, featuring a strong, passionate vocal by this young Indonesian superstar.
“Getting Afgan, this huge star in Southeast Asia, on this record was kind of like a longshot for me. He’s a huge heartthrob on the order of somebody like Chance the Rapper,” says Kirk. “For me to even be welcomed onto the stage with him there was an anomaly. And there I am, this black American jazz artist up there with him, surrounded by a huge crowd of young fans, all like 13 to 25. And I’m just doing what I do – kind of like what I did with Whitney Houston.”
A short story from the feature length documentary.
Kirk talks about the latest chapter in the award winning series "The Gospel According to Jazz"