The Gospel According to Jazz, Vol. II
- reviewed by LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2002 1 Oct
If you listen to contemporary gospel, smooth jazz, or mainstream popular music, chances are you've heard Kirk Whalum's artful tenor saxophone without knowing it. Whalum has toured with Whitney Houston (remember the emotive sax solo on "I Will Always Love You" from
Whalum's latest inspirational offering, The Gospel According to Jazz – Vol. II, follows 2000's Grammy-nominated
The album opens with "John 1:1," a light, complex composition in 7/4 time with lyrics taken from the Apostle John's introduction to his Lord: "In the beginning was the Word / And the Word was with God / In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was God." The sax floats dreamily over the crisp vocals, like a lead vocalist who knows just when to ad-lib and when to pull back. "Thy Will Be Done" includes lush vocals backing South African acoustic guitarist Jonathan Butler as he incorporates themes from "The Lord's Prayer." "Seasons," an instrumental piece composed by Whalum's son Kyle and based on Ecclesiastes 3, features the young Whalum, a budding bass player, in a series of interludes alternating a soft, low key treatment of his instrument with an intense, gritty handling.
"No-Word Praise" is a clean, fast-paced homage to the African-American church experience of "shouting": "I think I'm feelin' a no-word praise comin' on / Done got so happy ain't got no words for this song / I open my mouth but I just can't speak / Cause I feel the Spirit all over me." There's a nice call-and-response interchange between Whalum's shouting saxophone and the scatting vocalists in this number, accented by a subtle organ. The church boy's Baptist roots show in this piece, and it's clear the audience appreciates it. "El Todopoderoso" is an upbeat number with Spanish lyrics paying tribute to "The All-Powerful One." It highlights the deep, throaty lead vocals of Ta Ta Vega (a longtime jazz and gospel artist in her own right) and the skillful percussion of Luis Conte. Whalum's brother Kevin sanctifies Johnny "Guitar" Watson's classic "Ta Ta You Baby" by changing the lyrics to "Ta Ta You Jesus" and thus transforming it to an expression of thanksgiving for God's intervention in life. The final cut on the album (and the only studio track), "The Moment I Prayed," is a sweet, complementary interplay between Kevin's easy tenor and gospel artist Kim Burrell's rich, husky soprano. The song serves as a subtle altar call and a fitting end to this musical testimony.
If the album weren't a live recording, "Falling in Love With Jesus," wouldn't quite fit in with the rest of the album. The song has the feel of a praise chorus, and as a result, the jazz elements Whalum adds are a bit jarring. It's also somewhat unsatisfying from a lyrical perspective. Still, it's clear the audience truly enjoyed this song and joined the worship experience. Butler's soulful, lead vocal is compelling – imagine Stevie Wonder singing gospel – and sensitive piano and sweet improvisational riffs at the end of the song gave it a warm, churchy feel. The band has a wonderful "gel," and the songs give each musician a chance to subtly shine. The vocals are strong and accent rather than interfere with the music. If you don't enjoy smooth jazz á la Kenny G or Spyro Gyra, this probably isn't the album for you. If, however, you'd like to spend a little more time with a legendary Christian artist whose music you've likely heard in all arenas for years, you'll want to give this a spin – it's got a great variety of songs, and you'll find it a nice introduction to the rest of Whalum's discography.