All the Colors of Jazz

The saxophone has been a longtime favorite of jazz musicians ever since the early days of great players such as Charlie "Bird" Parker, John Coltrane and Houston's own Arnette Cobb. Some jazz lovers will even tell you that jazz just isn't jazz unless it includes a sax. But there are others who'll tell you how many present-day saxophonists have the same sound. And they've got a point; there are too many similarities in the market, too many boring, monotonous, repetitious and unorthodox players getting too much attention. Guys such as, we might as well say it, Kenny G, who may be a fine entertainer, but a standout saxophonist? Not likely.

But there is a flip side to the Kenny G coin, a side on which lies one of contemporary jazz's great hopes, the creator of a contemporary, innovating and graceful sax sound: Kirk Whalum.

Full of spunk, glistening melodies and spontaneity, Whalum's music has gone though a number of changes throughout his career. What hasn't changed is how he has managed to stand alone in his field as a source of not just consistency, but innovation. Jazz and all its colors is the best way to describe his work; for his part, Whalum simply notes that "I have always been known as one of those guys with the sound that you can recognize from others."

That sound first made Whalum a much-in-demand session musician; it also bought him appearances backing up the likes of Take 6, Marcus Miller, Barbra Streisand, Nancy Wilson and, most notably, Whitney Houston. It was Whalum's high-profile playing with Houston that gave him the exposure he needed to cross over from a jazz success into a success, period. Whalum not only stood out with a smooth, sultry saxophone solo on the hit single "I Will Always Love You" from the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, but also served as Houston's opening act when she went on tour following the release of the movie and the CD.

That tour gave the rest of the country a taste of what many Houstonians had long been familiar with, thanks to Whalum's time here at Texas Southern University. Whalum originally hails from Memphis, where he grew up playing the sax for his father's church choir. In Memphis, he received a steady diet of gospel and rhythm and blues, though he ultimately gravitated to jazz during high school.

It was that jazz passion that brought him to TSU, where one of his teachers was Arnette Cobb. "My biggest mentor," Whalum says of the musician he first met when Cobb, 58 and moving on the crutches that were as much his symbol as his saxophone, propelled himself into a TSU practice room and showed the still teenage Whalum just what a tenor sax could sound like. But as influential as Cobb was, Whalum's original mentor, he says, "was Hank Crawford. Even though he played the alto sax, to me his approach was just like a singer and that's what really interested me to get into jazz."

Whalum arrived at TSU in 1976, and, by 1979, he had formed his own band and begun playing around Texas. Whalum's break into the jazz big time came when he opened for Bob James when the well known keyboardist and producer had a Houston show. James, known most widely for his theme song for TV's Taxi, liked what he heard and invited Whalum to come to New York and do some studio work. "It just so happened that I was in the right place at the right time with the right sound," says Whalum.

That could be seen as a masterpiece of understatement. The work with James opened the door for Whalum to pursue his own contemporary jazz career, which has resulted in a series of successful Columbia releases, Floppy Disk, And You Know That, The Promise -- all produced by James -- Cache and, this year, In This Life.

In This Life, selections from which will likely pepper his show at the Houston Arena Theatre this week, is easily Whalum's most adventurous and heartfelt project to date. Recorded mostly in Tennessee, the CD gave Whalum a chance to return to some of the elements that influenced him when he was starting to get a sense of what music really was. "This record reminds me of the South where I grew up," Whalum says. "The South is where country, blues, soul and gospel all melt together in the same pot. I wanted to make an album of Tennessee music, focusing more on the soul and R&B elements of the Nashville sound."

Even though Whalum adds that "as much as I would like to say it, my new album is not a departure from my old style -- it's really not in the sense of harmonically, production, instrumentation and all of those elements," he does admit that In This Life is "radically different from [my] previous releases. I was really barking up an urban tree [with those]."

In This Life has 12 cuts that showcase the range of Whalum's abilities, ranging from "When the Night Rolls In," (co-written by Brenda Russell and featuring Houstonian Teresa James on vocals) to "I Turn to You," which comes alive thanks to Whalum's musing, sighing tenor sax. Whalum's work is an education in what the sax is capable of -- and a reminder of how important such sounds are to what jazz is all about.

Kirk Whalum plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 17 at the Houston Arena Theatre. Tickets are $20, $30, $55 and $104. Call 988-1020 for info.