Cover Story

KIRK WHALUM
By Brian Soergel

Some things just make sense. Putting saxophonists Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright on a new tour called Sax for Stax, a highlight of this month’s VF Outlet Berks Jazz Fest, zooms right to the top of the list.

"Oh, we’re really excited about this tour," said Whalum. "It has a lot of great music, of course, and people will enjoy themselves and sing along with the songs. I think Sax for Stax will have to come back in a few other versions before it’s over."

The tour ties in to the inspiring comeback of the legendary Stax Records, which opened in Memphis in 1959 and quickly earned the city its nickname of Soulsville USA. Before declaring bankruptcy in late 1975, Stax helped define the gritty side of American soul music through artists such as Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, the Staples Singers, Otis Redding and Booker T. & The MGs. In 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened at the site of the original Stax Recording Studios, which was torn down in 1989. Now, Stax Records is back as a subsidiary of Concord Music Group.
    
Of course, both Whalum and Albright grew up on Stax Music––Whalum from his home in Memphis and Albright in his native Los Angeles. In 2003, Whalum released Into My Soul, which honored the great Memphis musicians of the past and spotlighted young Memphis musicians of the present. One Memphis star of the past on the new CD was the late Isaac Hayes, who died last August. Feeling the tug of his roots, Whalum recently relocated to Memphis with wife Ruby after living in L.A., Houston and Paris. Soon after, the new Stax Music Academy selected Whalum as its first artist in residence.

Similarly, Albright always knew that the Stax sound was special to his inspiration as a saxophone player. Last year he paid tribute to his idols with the CD Sax for Stax, from which the tour is named. It offered cover songs and originals, the latter including “Walkin’ Down Beale Street” with a guest appearance by––you guessed it––Whalum. The song takes its title from the iconic Memphis street at the center of the city’s musical history.

"Kirk and I have been longtime friends, and originally that song was going to go on a duet record of ours,” says Albright. “So I actually wrote a song kind of in that flavor, which felt so good to me at the time and it felt so compatible to the whole Stax thing. And as far as tenor players go, Kirk’s one of the most soulful of the modern-day players.”

Whalum is equally admiring of his touring partner. “I just about fell out of my chair when I heard he was doing the Stax record,” he said. “He’s arguably the quintessential voice of the alto sax of the 21st century.” Whalum said that he and Albright will be performing many of the songs from Albright’s GRAMMY-nominated CD, which includes “Knock on Wood,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Cheaper to Keep Her,” “What You See Is What You Get” and “Respect Yourself.” “The CD and tour highlights tell the story of Stax Records. It’s a story people already know because when they hear the songs they go, ‘I know that song.’ But a lot of times people don’t realize it’s a Stax thing, a Memphis thing.”

The Sax for Stax band includes keyboardist Tracy Carter, bassist Melvin Davis, drummer J.J. Williams and guitarist Gary Goin. Goin, as Whalum notes, is a native of Memphis who was a protégé of Stax’s David Porter, best known as Isaac Hayes’ songwriting partner.

"Gary’s from the source," Whalum said. “He’ll be right there on stage funkin’ it up on that skanky Memphis blues, country, soul, whatever it is that made Steve Cropper and those great Memphis guitar players idols all over the world.”

Whalum, Albright and the band will also be playing some of their own original material, such as tunes from Whalum’s 2007 CD, Roundtrip, also GRAMMY-nominated. True to its title, Whalum calls it a journey through the past, present and future of his music. The CD features new compositions and re-imaginings of his popular, career-defining hits, including “Glow” and “The Wave.”**

 **The complete story can be found in the March issue of Smooth Jazz News. Subscribe today. Receive 11 editions of Smooth Jazz News per year, mailed monthly (February through December), for $35.

For more information on Whalum, including his discography and complete tour schedule, visit www.kirkwhalum.com.