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
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
"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
**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.