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One can imagine the knowing glances Kirk Whalum shot across the studio to Keiko Matsui as the saxophonist and keyboardist soulfully conversed over the easy-flowing grooves of “SJL,” one of 14 tracks on Whalum’s expansive, socially conscious new album Humanité (Artistry Music). The title is a tongue-in-cheek acronym for “Smooth Jazz Legend,” a dubious distinction that Whalum impressively transcends via the rich, global sensibilities of his latest outing.
During a cruise a few years ago, Whalum was part of a lineup featuring Matsui, Gerald Albright and Peter White called “Legends of Smooth Jazz” — and it rubbed him the wrong way. “It’s always wonderful to play for appreciative audiences, but it was a bittersweet experience for me,” he says. “I thought, if that’s gonna be my epitaph, I better get moving on the next phase of my career. When I turned 60 during the recording of this album, I made important decisions about my future, changing management, the brand of sax I was using (he switched from Keilwerth to P. Mauriat after 30 years) and focusing on a new musical direction. The world, and my personal world, are way bigger than who’s on top of the smooth-jazz charts. I have no hopes and dreams there, but a lot of passion invested in sharing music with the global community. I would be missing so much beauty and the opportunity to play with so many artists around the world if I just played smooth jazz.”
To that end, Humanité stands out in scope and thematic intention from any other album Whalum has released during his nearly 35-year recording career. Produced by the saxophonist’s longtime friend, British trumpeter and producer James McMillan, the sessions were tracked in studios in Paris, Tokyo, Jakarta, Nairobi and Johannesburg, as well as in hotel rooms and office buildings in other cities and even in Whalum’s living room in Memphis. Many of these sessions — and the inspiring, often gritty stories of the artists who participated in them — are chronicled in the as-yet-unreleased Humanité: The Beloved Community, an insightful companion documentary film, directed by Jim Hanon, that weaves colorful segments about the years Whalum spent growing up a preacher’s son in Memphis with stories about the diverse cast of artists featured on the album.
By design, Matsui and bassist Marcus Miller may be the only guest artists recognized by American audiences. From the rousing, gospel-inflected cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” (spotlighting UK vocalist Brendan Reilly) to the exotic and funky “From the East to the West” (sung by Japanese soul-gospel group Heavenese), these McMillan-arranged studio dates emerged from the emotional, creative and cultural connections Whalum forged with these musicians (many of them superstars in their own countries) in the many places he’s traveled and performed.
Other highlights include a gorgeous rendition of Skylark’s 1970’s hit “Wildflower,” sung powerfully by Liane Carroll (UK), with the song’s lyrics intended in this case to draw attention to the tragedy of human trafficking; the buoyant, horn-drenched “Get Your Wings Up,” featuring Andrea Lisa (South Africa); the brassy ensemble piece “Kwetu,” spotlighting pianist Aaron Rimbui and the Ghetto Classics youth orchestra (both from Kenya); and the defiantly optimistic dance tune “Peace,” with singer Grace Sahertian (Indonesia).
Another standout performance is delivered by Indonesian singer Afgan, a major star in Southeast Asia, who artfully balances R&B sensibilities with spiritual grace on a warm reading of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody.” Whalum had been toying with the idea of creating a project like Humanité, but he finally resolved to make it happen soon after he joined Afgan onstage at the Java Jazz Festival, in Jakarta, and basked in the adulation of thousands of the singer’s screaming fans.
Perhaps the album’s most compelling track is the grooving jazz-fusion piece “Korogocho,” which finds Whalum interlacing his punchy soprano with fiery dueling bass solos by Miller and young Indonesian virtuoso Barry Likumahuwa. “When I wrote the song,” Whalum says, “I envisioned Marcus playing on it. He really brought it to life. But in the meantime, I met Barry at Java Jazz. They paired us up, and I thought, ‘This cat is bad!’ His playing connected with me on a spiritual level.”
Both Humanité and the companion documentary film contain an undercurrent connecting the album’s diverse musical elements to the civil rights movement. Whalum was 9 years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated blocks away from his family home. At the time he was too young to understand the event’s deeper implications. Yet at 50, when Whalum was in-session with a counselor, he says, “Guess what came up? That day. Turns out I had not processed it, and it was still causing underlying trauma in my life. Getting the train back on track had everything to do with how I would respond to what happened the day he was killed.”
Whalum’s church upbringing led him to embrace King’s vision of “The Beloved Community,” which The King Center defines as “a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
Humanité now serves as the latest and most creatively fulfilling leg of Whalum’s journey back to personal wholeness while bridging his artistry to ideas concerning the greater good of humanity. “It’s a very impressionistic album,” he says, that addresses “social justice and issues we are continuing to deal with on a global level. Much of it reflects an insurgent counter-culture speaking against what we see that distresses us. By collaborating, we can empower each other and acknowledge the life of God in people from completely different cultures. Jazz means freedom of expression and the passion to communicate excitement about not being restricted by — and to — what’s in front of you.” - Jonathan Widran