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Album Review

Contemporary jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum decided to take a little trip back in time on Roundtrip, back to the Memphis club scene that nurtured him early on, and to record some of his earliest compositions — and ones written expressly for him — with fresh ears as well as some new ones. Recording in four different places from Memphis to Los Angeles to New York to England, Whalum asked some old pals to pop in, like Earl Klugh, Jeff Golub, Gerald Albright, and Philippe Saisse, as well as some of his stalwart rocksteady bandmates such as Rex Rideout, drummer Michael White, bassist Melvin Davis, guitarist Mark Jaimes, and trumpeter James McMillan. There are a few other surprises as well, such as the appearance of Kim Fields on "In a Whisper," Shanice on "Inside," and sons Kyle, Hugh, and Kevin making appearances as well. Issued on his own Rendezvous Music imprint, this is Whalum at his most relaxed and celebratory. That said, Roundtrip has no less polish than anything recorded over his nearly 30-year career, and the label was his idea. It's a deeply personal offering that is celebratory in nature rather than merely reflective. The pairing with Klugh on "Ruby Ruby Ruby" is on the money. The keen melodic sensibilities both men possess complement one another perfectly, and the mix is skeletal enough to let Klugh's gorgeous guitar playing stand out. Whalum's tenor playing and the light, Latin-kissed composition are sparse and in the pocket. The reading of Nat Adderley, Jr.'s "The Wave" (the original is from 1988's And You Know That LP on Columbia) doesn't work quite so well in that Saisse does all the keyboards and programming and Whalum just blows over the top. The problem is that the synthetic handclaps add nothing; in fact, they detract from what otherwise might have been a nice funkier version of the tune. "Big 'Ol Shoes," which immediately follows, however, gets right down to it. Co-written by Whalum and Rideout, it's funky in all the right places, with one of those transcendent choruses that Whalum slips into his own tunes so often. The Grover Washington, Jr./Creed Taylor/Kudu feel is all over this one, with some killer keyboard work from Rideout and tasty guitars by Darrell Crooks.

The vocal performance by Shanice on "Inside" is a beautiful urban soul and nearly gospel performance, and Whalum lets his vocalist get to it without getting in her way. Producer James McMillan (who co-wrote the cut) keeps his star back in the mix until it's time for him to blow a solo. Kim Fields speaks her track, and it works seamlessly. Rideout, who co-wrote the cut, produces it and takes the same approach with Whalum, though the saxophonist plays more fills, allowing his in-the-pocket sense of lyric improvisation to underscore the vocalist's lines. "Back in the Day" is a slick but fruitful hip-hop track with rapper Caleb tha Bridge and Albright on alto. This is positive hip-hop, with plenty of soul casting a reflective and nostalgic look at the past. Whalum and John Stoddart act as a backing chorus. It's innocent but not cloying, the groove is solid, and the saxophonists playfully entwine around one another and do call and response, ending up playing harmony in the solo break. The chorus has "single" written all over it — if only the square urban and smooth jazz radio programmers would get out of their rut and test it on an actual audience. The set ends with another early Whalum composition in "Afterthought" from his debut album, Floppy Disk, in 1985. The lithe groove shimmers and swirls as White's backbeat kicks the tune just enough in contrast to the deep bassline of Alex Al and the vibes-like percussion of Kevin Ricard; Rideout's keyboards paint Whalum's backdrop brightly and he blows the tune out of memory, from that charmed place of having the gratitude and sheer lyric talent needed to look back. It's not hollow nostalgia here, but rather the quintessential taste to revisit this tune with so much soul over two decades later and play it like he means it — only there's wisdom here, too: the tune means something a little different now, and his blowing near the cut's end is full of deep swelling emotion and smoking chops he didn't have in 1985. Anybody could play his old tunes, or replay them, or re-record a greatest-hits album, but Whalum didn't do that; he made something new and beautiful out of his past that points to an even brighter, more aesthetically satisfying future now that he — instead of another record company — controls it. Highly recommended.


Born: July 11, 1958 in Memphis, TN

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

From his early days in Memphis where he played in his father's church choir, veteran saxophonist Kirk Whalum drew inspiration from the rich musical traditions of that city, including gospel, R&B, blues, and eventually jazz. He received a scholarship to attend music school at Texas Southern University, where he formed a band in 1979 and began playing shows on the local club circuit. When he opened for Bob James in Houston in 1984, the pianist was impressed with Whalum's expressive style, and invited...
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Roundtrip, Kirk Whalum
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