Many believe the gospel has always been played in jazz notes, whether in the agonizing lament of a Psalm, the improvisational expression of shape-note singing, the haunting strains of a Negro spiritual or the joyous celebration of a Dixieland band. Kirk Whalum and his company of translators is here to make sure that the intrinsic creativity, inspiration and skilled presentation that is part of both the gospel and the language of jazz is sounded clearly in the culture at large and the church in seasons of both triumph and tragedy. The award-winning series that launched with the initial The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter I in 1998 has transformed the concept of sharing the “gospel truth” through instrumental music. Each of the subsequent releases has garnered critical acclaim and award nominations, with “It’s What I Do” from GATJ III taking home the Grammy for Best Gospel Song in 2011.
After a six-year wait, the much anticipated The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter IV is here with a two-disc, 19-song CD (and a feature-length DVD) that sets a benchmark for live recording, nuanced performance and deep improvisation at the most profoundly felt, thoughtfully conceived and personal level. Kirk Whalum’s insightful and revelational narrative both in concert and post-production in the DVD version enriches the whole experience, with an up-close and personal look at the heart of the artist and his art. Once again, Whalum, shares the stage with members of his exceptionally gifted family, including brother Kevin (vocals) and nephews Kenneth III (saxophones) and Kortland (vocals). His cohorts in jazz super group BWB (both solo artists in their own right), Rick Braun (trumpet, flugelhorn, valve trombone) and Norman Brown (guitars, vocals) join an eminent ensemble comprised of legendary percussionist “Doc” Gibbs, renowned bassist Gerald Veasley, rising vocal star (and Stevie Wonder protégé) Sheléa, as well as returning co-producer John Stoddart who lends his eloquent and soulful keys and vocals to the mix.
GATJ IV is an invitation to pause, hear, and “see” in a fresh, prescient way; it is also a tribute album that is uniquely gospel-centric. Honored are heads of state (Mandela and Obama), departed and greatly respected and loved artists (George Duke, Wayman Tisdale, and John Coltrane), alongside mothers (Kirk’s… and yours if you like) and a homeless woman Whalum came to call friend (“Nannette”). In myriad ways, the gospel’s welcome is declared and displayed with eloquence and power.
GATJ always spotlights the God-given gifts of leading artists outside the “church” world. Says, Kirk, “We always try to reach out to the cadre beyond gospel artists, to a Norman Brown, a Rick Braun, or Doc Gibbs; that is a very crucial part of our approach. By their willingness to be part of it and by honoring them and their spiritual quest, what we are able to do is create a safe space, a sort of spiritual and musical “Switzerland.”
Additionally, Whalum wanted to amplify the direction taken on GATJ III: “One of the things on my mind was carving a deeper niche in the improvisation, longer, more in-depth solos, a little bit more avant garde.” This is front and center on songs like “Madiba,” Kirk’s elegant, polyrhythmic South African seasoned tribute to Nelson Mandela and “Triage,” an instrumental editorial-on-and-embodiment-of the mash-up of life and death in the world—dissonant, chaotic and composed, it’s an improvisational tour de force. His signature melodic and soulful fusion drawing from jazz idiom across generations and genres—contemporary jazz to Dixieland, Bebop, Big Band and beyond—as well as a strong identification with R&B, blues, world music, rock, Latin and pop hasn’t changed, but the balance has indisputably shifted.
Kirk’s intent on this record was to deliver for the listener a more pensive, meditative, contemplative, take your time with what you’re really feeling exploration. Along with the previously mentioned “Madiba” and “Triage,” Kirk’s tribute to Coltrane, “Un Amor Supremo” an original with a Cubano/Santana/Afro-Caribbean vibe and Doc Gibbs strongly featured—reflects that trend. Trane’s artistry is alluded to not only in the title but the extended solos and Whalum’s abandoned yet precision performance—Transcendent. Street. Smart. “Cain’t Stay Blue” is an infectious mood elevator, with a vocal and musical hook that won’t let go. The persistent hope, patience and resolve not to give up that captured the essence of the Civil Rights Movement and a nation in 1964 on Curtis Mayfield’s “Keep On Pushing” is a GATJIV highlight.
On the downside, it is the first GATJ without the inimitable keys of jazz giant George Duke. Kirk Whalum composed and takes the vocal lead on an evocative tribute and heartfelt requiem to his dear friend and fellow artist titled “There,” derived from Duke’s favorite saying “We were there!” Abounding with hopeful transparency and contemporary jazz opulence, underscored by Stoddart’s keys, it’s a fitting tribute to the Duke who is now “there” with his King. The late Wayman Tisdale’s song “Sunday’s Best” is both a tribute and a contemporary jazz triumph showcasing the prodigious talents of BWB and bassist Gerald Veasley. And on the vocal side of things, Kirk’s brother Kevin’s understated cool retools Paul and Linda McCartney’s “Let ’Em In’” (complete with an intricate scat). While Sheléa brings warmth, subtlety and soul to the Foo Fighters mega-hit “My Hero”; the Negro spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”; and “I See You.” The latter was written by Kirk in response to and reflecting the customary greeting, “I see you” of the Na’vi tribe in the movie Avatar—another unexpected context for and allusion to gospel truth, so a perfect fit for a GATJ chapter.
The heart of The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter IV is an invitation to see…and to hear in fresh and expansive ways. To see God and to see people, to experience the Creator’s radical welcome, and then to throw the doors of your heart wide open with welcome to those he loves and created. The message of the final track, originally penned by Todd Rundgren and popularized by England Dan and John Ford Coley not only completes the album, but sums it up and describes the raison d’etre for The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter IV (and all the previous and subsequent chapters to come)—simply, and profoundly: “Love Is The Answer.”