It was a question — or, at the least, a consideration — that sat in the back of Kirk Whalum's mind as he assembled his newest album: "What would John Coltrane think?"
Those who have experienced Whalum's Grammy-winning music over the past 27 years would probably never contemplate such a query. Both artists can be viewed as spiritually inclined saxophonists, but aside from that, they come from different stylistic universes. Whalum is an artist whose playing is steeped in the melodic, smooth jazz accessibility of R&B and pop; Coltrane, who died in 1967, was viewed as an improvisational colossus whose music grew from bop-bred jazz into groundbreaking avant-garde innovation.
So what's the connection? And why would Whalum, who performs Saturday for the African American Forum's annual Lexus Smooth Jazz Fest, be pondering the blessing of a late jazz giant?
The answer comes with the makeup of Whalum's most recent album, Romance Language. The record's first six songs are re-imaginings of the repertoire that makes up the 1963 album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. That record, long considered one of Coltrane's most accessible works, used his famed '60s quartet (completed by pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones), a collection of standards (composed by Irving Berlin, Billy Strayhorn, and Rodgers and Hart) and the sleek vocals of Garrison.
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"Coltrane was such a soft-spoken and generous person that I believe he would have liked this project," Whalum said. "I think he would have been honored. I think he would have said, 'Wow. This is cool.' I know if, say, a hip-hop artist did some of my music, I would be flattered.
"I mean, this is a totally different but very authentic and earnest way of paying tribute to his music. I say authentic because I grew up in Memphis. So when it comes out of R&B in instrumentation and form, it's natural for me. To put his music in this space, I think, is something kind of novel. But it's honest and respectful, too. And I think it's something that doesn't diminish the original.
"That was the main thing. I didn't want to be someone who dug up a legendary artist and recorded one of those pieced-together duets with their music. That's foul. This is paying tribute but with using your own tools."
Whalum is hardly new to the music of Coltrane or to the album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. He wrote a master's thesis on Coltrane during the '80s. But interpreting the 1963 album also allowed the saxophonist to maintain a working partnership with younger brother Kevin Whalum, who serves as a sort of modern-day Hartman on Romance Language.
"My brother and I have been collaborating for probably 20 years now," Whalum said. "He's nine years younger than me and listened to a lot of my music in his formative years. And all along, I've felt a simpatico between him and the great Johnny Hartman. So whenever I listened to that record, the famous ballads record he did with Coltrane, I would think of my brother and how we could not avoid a re-imagining of that project. This is something that's been on my mind for a long time."
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was barely 30 minutes long, so Whalum beefed up Romance Language with comparatively contemporary songs written and/or popularized by modern soul stylists Eric Benet, Minnie Riperton and the duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. These songs, obviously, are light-years removed from the Coltrane catalog, but not from the vibe that embraces it on Romance Language.
"I felt as personal a connection with those songs as I did with the first six," Whalum said. He can only imagine what Coltrane would have thought about Romance Language, but he chose to largely ignore what jazz critics had to say about it. Ever since Whalum's debut album, Floppy Disk, came out in 1985, he has contended with mounting commercial success and a devout fan base but numerous jabs from critics already inclined against anything related to the music now termed smooth jazz.
"The jazz illuminati kind of ignore us for the most part anyway," Whalum said. "It's sort of a given because of the gulf that has developed between jazz music that is R&B-based and jazz that is based more or less on the framework of the '40s and '50s, both in terms of instrumentation and content. So right off the bat, I knew I didn't have to worry so much about the scorn of those critics because they are already not really concerned with what we do. So actually, I felt kind of a freedom. It was liberating."