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GRAMMY Award winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum

GRAMMY Award winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum
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Written and Interviewed by Aaron Robinson – Editor @iamcomprehend

GRAMMY Award winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum

GRAMMY Award winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum

After 5 years of not releasing a solo album, GRAMMY® Award-winning saxophonist, Kirk Whalum, continues to raise the bar with his new album Epic Cool. Releasing over 25 albums over the course of his career, the 65 year old saxophonist continues to shine, defining “cool,” whether infusing hits or blazing trails in contemporary jazz.

The award-winning Memphis-born jazz saxophonist stopped by to have a chat with Consciousness Magazine about his new album Epic Cool. Here is what Kirk Whalum has to share with the readers.

Aaron Robinson: Hey, Kirk Whalum. How are you doing, sir?

Kirk Whalum: I’m doing great, man, thank you.

Aaron: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule. I am really, really honored to be on the phone with you.

Kirk: Yes, indeed. It my pleasure!

Aaron: What was the motivation behind putting together your new album, Epic Cool?

Kirk: That title came later. The motivation was really to make a statement about where I’m at right now. I think it’s easy to write off artists in their 60s as if you’re just hashing over old stuff, or you’re on your way into retirement [laugh].

I know so many artists in their 70s and 80s. Charles Lloyd is a great example, who is yet creating, innovating… I was inspired by that to do this record and to not rely on doing cover songs, but to write new material, fresh ideas, and fresh vibes. And it ended up getting called Epic Cool, which I think is really appropriate because there’s something extra cool about the OGs, you know, like folks who have been doing it for a while. That was how I got inspired when I first started playing. I was listening to Charles Lloyd, Hank Crawford and Arnett Cobb and on and on. And they were older. To say that just the young artists are relevant is an unfortunate statement for artists in their 60s and 70s, who are out there with all kinds of energy, recording and touring all over the world.

Aaron: What’s the secret to you staying relevant where we have a world of digital and auto tune music? Did that change any of the course of your career?

Kirk: Just to say more broadly, technology absolutely influenced my career, I should say, my music. And the technology becomes part of the process. I think the trouble is when the technology becomes an end in itself. I was inspired by artists like my mentor, Bob James, who was an earlier adapter to digital technologies and the ways that it can facilitate and even inspire more creativity as opposed to becoming crutches where you’re not using your own brain cells. You definitely can’t use all of them. But no, it ends up being facilitation and it can kind of catapult you into other areas of creativity.

Aaron: Was your experience recording this album different from any of your past albums?

Kirk: It was – primarily because of the energy of the young producer who is half Nigerian and half Swiss…the global perspective. I am aesthetic that Greg Manning brought to the party right away; it just pushed me in different directions and inspired me. So, the song that I sent him that I was kind of done with, he would send them back with elements that sparkle. He would just send me a track of an idea that he was working on. And then boom! I’m just right away writing melodies. Most of the times, I literally just played and that was the melody. I ended up playing and improvising the melody to the song. I’m spontaneously composing because of this inspiration.

Aaron: That was going to be one of my sidebars. When you’re writing the melody, do you hear the saxophone playing it as words, or it is just a melody or a combination?

Kirk: So, it’s not words. The thing is that we communicate all the time without using words. Especially beauty, it is communicated above the verbal language. I speak French and Spanish, and we lived in France for a while. I studied over there as a teenager, and just spent time in Guatemala and Costa Rica… particular studying Spanish. But it’s not that; it’s not words. It’s communicating something beautiful, something of value, a perspective. So, you’re communicating on a higher level with the listener. And if they have years to receive it, they know that they have been in a conversation though not verbally… oh, this is what was said. No, it’s deeper than that. And that to me is really powerful. Think of all the amazing jazz musicians from Miles Davis and so on; they can break and enter into a person’s soul. Notice that I didn’t say the mind, because the mind is not necessary, especially if a person’s not a musician, they’re not really comprehending what’s going on, but they are receiving it.

Unless they’re hearing impaired, they can’t keep us out. The fact that you and I are talking right now in two different cities, that’s because of sound wave. God created those waves, and that’s the same way that we see things on a TV, et cetera, et cetera. So, that powerful medium created by God where we use it as sound waves, that’s our language.

Aaron: I agree. Absolutely. Because Kirk, I first heard of your first song in 1983, “Love is a Losing Game”. That changed my whole summer around. And just the nostalgia of that when I listen to it today I still feel that era when I was a teenager. It’s something about the vibe of it.

Kirk: That’s incredible. Well, see, and that’s the thing, is that you didn’t say that you understood what I was saying. “Love is a Losing Game” is its own theme, right? And it is true that many people experience that feeling where you just feel like, man, what’s the use? But the way it’s delivered through music, it’s more poignant. You remember that after all these years, and now I would say that that wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for musical element.

If somebody just came from somewhere and said to you, “love is a losing game”, whatever, [laughsyou know, you’ve heard people say a lot of things. But when you heard it in that context that made you stop and you breathed it in, it became a part of your story.

Aaron: Yeah, it’s a beautiful song.

Kirk: Thank you! I wish I had written that though, but Walter Afanasieff wrote that song. Jevetta Steele by the way is an amazing artist. She’s still in the Minneapolis area. I would love to work with her again.

Aaron: Kirk, is there a particular song on the album that is more special to you than any other?

Kirk: Well, I want to say no, but Kori is special; I wrote it for my daughter. It means a lot. All my children are precious to me. Of course, my daughters, I have two sons and two daughters, but the girls especially, right. She went through a lot, especially starting with the pandemic and it was just hard on all of us. I wrote that song out of pain. I hear it now and it still brings tears to my eyes because it’s just so meaningful. Again, there are no words, but it’s a whole lot of emotions and ideas and stuff that are not verbal.

Aaron: And when your fans and listeners listen to the new album, what do you want them to take away or the impression you want to leave on them?

Kirk: I just want communication with them on a personal level – on an intimate level. I mean, I’m a follower and a worshiper of Jesus Christ. And I believe that his kingdom of unconditional self-giving love is the answer. It will change everything around. And that is the primary thing that I hope that I can communicate in one way or another. It’s not comprehensive… just one aspect of it at a time I want to try to communicate. Other than that, just love, mutual respect and empathy. It’s a beautiful thing.

Aaron: Kirk, you recorded more than 25 albums over the course of your career. What gratification do you receive from that?

Kirk: Well, I’ve been playing the saxophone 54 years, and it’s that part of it is that is still hard for me to wrap my head around. I’m still working at it [saxophone].

One of my true mentors or true heroes, I only met him once, is the great Sonny Rollins. When he was no longer able to play because of a pulmonary issue, he went into a deep depression. Later when he was better, he was interviewed and they asked him, why did you experience that with all of the fans globally, the interaction from them, and the great musicians that you played with in your career…the camaraderie? He said, “Well, all that was important, but the thing that depressed me is that I would no longer be able to practice.” So, to pursue this thing, this instrument and this thing called jazz, and just improvise music and just to go further and further in… that’s the thing that made his life worthwhile. So, he had to get to a point to accept that, and then just find other ways of pursuing that type of thing.

Aaron: Interesting. And for those aspiring musicians, do you have any words of encouragement for them to stay on a path and pursue the tenure that you have in your career?

Kirk: Yeah. So, the primary thing is to put forth you. With all the amazing musicians and all the amazing music out here, it’s still the same thing… and that’s who are you? Who is your tribe? Where are you from? What do you believe? What makes you tic? What’s important to you? You can’t do that if you quit. At 65, I’m just really kind of getting around to that. I’m getting close. I would just say work on it; keep working on it. Work on defining and developing who you are and let that be the thing that drives your music, because ultimately people will want to know that… maybe just a few at first. The longer you do it the more people are going to want to know.

Aaron: Absolutely. And Kirk before we conclude the interview is there anything that you would like to say regarding your album or anything that we haven’t spoken about?

Kirk: I’m hoping that it opens some doors for me internationally. That’s been a very big thing. I want to expand geographically so that people in other countries… I would probably get a chance to interact with them.

Epic Cool, it’s good because it’s not pop music; it’s not in a particular language. It just goes across all those borders. I want this record to open more doors internationally.

Aaron: I want to thank you, Kirk. Again, it’s an honor. I’m grateful!

Kirk: You’re welcome brother! Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to hang out.

Aaron: Yes, Absolutely.

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Last modified: July 6, 2024