Ali Shaheed Muhammad: On Life and The Low End Theory

This past September marked the anniversaries of some of the most pivotal music of my generation.  It has been twenty years since Nirvana shook up the pop culture macrocosm with their momentous Nevermind album, turning indie rock into a mainstream phenomenon.  Pearl Jam has also reached the double-decade landmark with their album Ten, which was released just a couple weeks before. Growing up in the 90s, thirty-something music junkies like myself revel in these musical milestones, not simply for the nostalgia, but because of the actual genius of these ground-breaking stalwarts. However, there is one group whose essentiality matches that of their rocker contemporaries. Twenty years ago, A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory.  Hip hop would never be the same.

The Low End Theory was released on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind in September, 1991. The similarities between these pioneering groups are quite noteworthy. Both bands were impressively polished and keenly focused before landing any big deals. Both bands released solid debut albums that helped build an eager following, and both bands subsequently blew the figurative roof off of the musical stratosphere with their sophomore follow-ups. Ultimately, both bands changed the way music could be perceived by melding aesthetics that had not been imagined previously. A Tribe Called Quest is undoubtedly the most innovative and musical hip hop group of the 1990s, and arguably of all time. Their heavy jazz influence would aggressively gift intricate harmonies, warm chord changes, and rare grooves to the genre. While the Marsalis camp pushed straight ahead jazz into mainstream relevance once again in the 80s, the early 90s would serve jazz to the collective young, Black community by melding more jazz-funk/jazz-soul leaning music with hip hop. Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues set off the decade with a major motion picture about the life of a modern day jazz musician, (with the help of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Robert Hurst, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Terence Blanchard as the actual band). The movie’s soundtrack included a jazz history lesson wrapped in rap, performed by the late emcee Guru of Gang Starr, who foretold accurately, in the last line of the last verse… “The 90s will be the decade of a ‘Jazz Thing.’”

Now let’s flip to the first line of the first song off of The Low End Theory, where A Tribe Called Quest unabashedly coined themselves on “Excursions”.  With pristine diction and his signature cadence, Q-Tip flows over a lone, fat, hard-grooving bass line about his father drawing correlations between hip hop and bebop. Fresh out of the gate, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were making a loud and clear statement that jazz was an integral part of their musical identities. I sat down with DJ/Producer Muhammad about their recording milestone, their recent documentary, and got some backstory on their love affair with jazz.

“My introduction [to jazz] came from Q-Tip, really,” credits Muhammad.  It wasn’t a hard sell for the Brooklyn native, who is a self-proclaimed musical sponge.  Muhammad grew up listening to a myriad of Black music: Blue Magic, Earth Wind and Fire, Teddy Pendergrass, Kool and the Gang, Parliament, Slave, and his mother’s personal favorite, The Spinners. Additionally, his uncle, to whom Muhammad was very close, was a bassist, and exposed him to the live local music scene. Jazz was just a heartbeat away and the progression was a natural one.

Courtesy of Ali Shaheed Muhammad

“There were a couple of other groups that were sampling jazz at that time,” adds Muhammad in terms of exposure. “Gang Starr, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Main Source, and even prior to us (at that point, we were the newer generation of hip hop), you had Stetsasonic, who called themselves The Hip Hop Band. This is before The Roots, but they were sampling jazz, and they even had a song called ‘Talking All That Jazz‘, which was a very historic moment in hip hop, [because] certain artists were not embracing what the artists were doing at that time by sampling jazz.  It was frowned upon.  You have Marley Marl, who was also a legendary, iconic producer, and someone who’s footsteps we wanted to follow; and he sampled soul and jazz.  So, there were a couple of people who introduced it, but I think the way that we delivered it was in such a way that had not really been done… in that capacity, in that manner, in that sound.”

Q-Tip, Phife, and Muhammad’s mixture of adventurous lyrics, rambunctious personae, hard beats and high-level musicality certainly set A Tribe Called Quest apart.  “One of the things that I think contributed to the success of The Low End Theory was actually the last single from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that was ‘Can I Kick It?’,” recalls Muhammad. “[That song] pretty much opened the doors of love from MTV and they really embraced us with that video.  It was sort of quirky.  The director had just done some cool things that I don’t think had been done [previously], and he kind of continued it with the videos from Low End Theory.  He was pretty advanced in his thinking.  But in any event, that album pretty much, I guess, had given us this sort of alternative hip hop kind of stroking that MTV liked at the time, which was a pretty big thing at that time.  It allowed for your video to be in heavy rotation and at that time, videos, in some sense, were dictating the popularity of artists and bands.  You know, we had kind of left off with that alternative style, but yet still hard with the drums [on] ‘Can I Kick It?’.  And we had come back with an album that wasn’t as…bohemian as the first album. It was actually a lot harder. So I think at that time, MTV was still willing to be a supporter of the record and I think the record just spoke for itself.  The strong artwork on the cover…and we just took our position and stood strong and the music just fell into people’s hearts the right way and the rest is history.”
Twenty years worth.

Photo Credit: Klaus Schielke

While by the 1990s, artists were proving that hip hop had staying power, there are not many groups who have evoked sentimentality, relevance, and a continued sense of modernism the way A Tribe Called Quest has.  Perhaps, it’s for this reason which they were the subject of a recent documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first of it’s kind on a hip hop band, directed by Michael Rappaport. We learn a lot about the band, on both personal and creative fronts.  Musically, you definitely come to understand the universalness which jazz offers to any musical amalgamation.  The best example would be The Low End Theory’s “Verses From the Abstract”, which features bass legend Ron Carter, who gets a closing shout out from Q-Tip right along with Pete Rock, Special Ed, and Big Daddy Kane.  A Tribe Called Quest had an ingenious way of creating a platform which was devoid of generational or cultural hierarchy, framing instead, an incessant, streamed portrayal of Black culture.  On bringing Mr. Carter on board, Muhammad explains, “The whole idea of having Ron Carter playing on the record came from Q-Tip.  He just has a style of playing that is perfect, and I think Q-Tip admired that.  And as he does, [he would] come up with an idea of like, ‘You know what would be cool? If we do this, that, such and such.’  He came up with the idea, and that happened to be one of the ideas that really stuck and he was adamant about it.  One phone call from one A&R, one musician and engineer, and this person, an affiliate… and next thing you know he shows up with his bass!  And like the professional who a lot of those jazz greats are, you give the charts, that’s all they need, they read the chart, say, ‘Where do you want me to play?’ look it over, ‘OK play here?’, do it, and then they’re out [laughs].  No hanging out, no vibing, talking and kicking it… just real quick. We were just like, ‘Wow, he’s here,’ like little puppies [laughs], and so we were really excited about him being there and grateful that he loaned himself to this project.”

But hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without a little drama, right? Muhammad says curiously, “I found out later on through this journalist, I think a European journalist… he said, ‘Ron Carter seems to be not too thrilled with you guys because he played on one song and apparently he’s all over the record,’ and we were like, ‘What?’ No. He played on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and that’s the song he’s on.  Some people thought we had sampled his bass and twisted it up and chopped it up and put it on several other songs, and I think maybe he even got that idea.  Now, I have not spoken to Mr. Carter since, so I don’t know if that’s true, or just some crazy rumor that a journalist started but needless to say, he laid his signature slides down on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and it was pretty dope having him on there.”

This golden era of hip-hop set an unyielding precedent for die-hard fans like myself who are now frustrated with the state of today’s mainstream so-called hip hop.  I asked Muhammad about his thoughts on the turns the genre has made, especially as of late.  In his careful and thoughtful fashion, he’s quiet for a while before he responds.

Photo Credit: Shino Yanagawa

“When you look at the so-called R&B charts, they’ve merged hip hop and R&B together so…this time in hip hop reminds me of the 80s; mostly 80s pop music,” he starts.  “A lot of groups like The Family, or songs like ‘99 Luftballoons’, and all these synthy Euro-pop bands.  That’s what a lot of the hip-hop reminds me of now.  I think it lacks a bit of soul.  It lacks warmth.  It lacks something that you can cling to.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but my love affair with music just comes from hearing what an artist is doing and being able to connect with them, and with their story and I understand the story of most of the rappers these days, but it’s so self-indulgent.  It’s not really talking about anything that connects us as human beings.  Even the music is just so cold.  Like, I love chords and chord progressions.  There don’t have to be any vocals there…like jazz music.  It just grabs your soul, and I feel like in popular black music right now, there aren’t so many groups in the forefront who have that kind of pull.” He ponders a while longer, before finally concluding, “I guess hip hop is always a reflection of life…I say that a lot.  And right now, I think people are cold.  They’re going through a lot.  They’re suffering.  We’re suffering…but we’re so disconnected from what I believe, is a spiritual connection.  When you have an absence of God in your life and the Creator, then everything goes cold.  Your soul just becomes dark, [and] you may not know why.  We’re in this vacuum just existing, soulless.  So it’s coming out in the music.”

Muhammad’s astute summation is rooted in both his Islamic faith and his experience in the music business, which he has often intertwined, creatively. Before releasing his 2004 solo project Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, an album which addressed head-on, his experiences being an American muslim post 9/11 and the core values of his Islamic faith, he was an intrinsic part of the necessitous and fecund neo-soul genre, which was sparked by a collaboration with the demiurgic D’Angelo on Brown Sugar.

Shaheed was introduced to the prodigious singer and multi-instrumentalist by his friend, mentor, and subsequent Lucy Pearl musical bandmate, Raphael Saadiq. “[Raphael] worked with D’Angelo, and wrote and produced ‘Lady’ and Saadiq is like an older brother to me,” says Muhammad. “Every time he came to New York, he would look me up, and one time he said, ‘I have to play something for you,’ and he played me D’Angelo. Once that happened, if we were in New York, we were together.  Or, we would go to Raphael’s house in Sacramento and just record just for fun. Not with the intention of really doing anything with it, but then it was like this stuff is really good, we should do something with it.” Lucy Pearl, Muhammad’s second band, was originally formulated with Saadiq and D’Angelo in mind as the other two-thirds. Though timing did not allow (D’Angelo was in the middle of recording his Voodoomasterpiece), Lucy Pearl did release a string of danceable hits, adding singer Dawn Robinson (previously of girl-power R&B group, En Vogue) to the mix.

Nowadays, Muhammad is knee-deep in his solo career, working simultaneously on three separate projects, and continuing on his never-ending quest to hone his skills as a musician. “As a kid DJ’ing, sampling, and looking for records, you just look for the best pieces, open loops, elements and parts that you can piece or put together, and now I don’t have to rely on that,” says Muhammad. “I can play a chord progression on a guitar. Sonically, I know how to make my drums sound like something that was played in 1960 compressed a hundred times over and put on vinyl. I know how to do that with a live set, so it’s like I’m really buzzing right now. I’m real happy, because I’m like, all this stuff sounds like a sample and it’s not.” Suitable on drums, bass and piano, Muhammad has just one of his long-term sights on learning the cello. “There’s still so much I don’t know, as far as theory. I want to be able to have that sort of understanding, that connection with music,” he says.

Photo Credit: Melissa Louise O'Neal

Muhammad’s tremendous respect for and admiration of jazz has obviously helped shape his career, but it also continues to be a source of inspiration. “With Tribe sampling jazz music, it definitely brought this turn around and I think this new love affair for jazz again,” he says. “There was this period — and I mean no disrespect to the legends and the greats who have paved the way, and are still staying true to the spirit of the genre — but there was this point where the face of jazz was very pop [with] smooth jazz, and Kenny G, and that was the thing, and I think that things were getting light. And here we come sampling the era and the period that was, for us, very progressive and it pretty much defined the…how should I say this… it defined the good conscious and the bad conscious of a person but put it to music. You know like, the mid to late 60s and early 70s period of jazz was really mean, and I think a lot of it had to do with the struggle, the civil rights movement, drugs, you know all these things… free love, and really taking a departure from that period of jazz that came before. Jazz musicians were really breaking off from sticking behind one strong front person and beginning to find their own voices, and individualities and it was a really rebellious things to do.  So that period of jazz is what we gravitated toward and we just felt it.  And by reintroducing it, but in our own way and adding our own little twist, I think it brought a greater interest back and what ultimately had come from that was this next generation of jazz musicians who grew up on hip hop, who also grew up listening to jazz. You know, you have guys like Robert Glasper who is clearly throwing it in your face [with] the stuff he’s doing, you know, covers on hip hop songs but with his twist on it. But you can hear even some of the spirits of Ahmad Jamal, like you hear all these things, but there is still a rawness and an edginess to it, and the same element that makes hip hop so loved is that element of, ‘I don’t care what you think, I’m not trying to impress you.’ Robert does it really well.  You [also] have Kendrick Scott, Brian Blade, Marcus Strickland, Chris Dave…there’s so many bad guys out there. I love seeing these guys play because it makes me feel like I’m in that, or of that era, when Miles was around or Max Roach…when those guys were coming of age and really leaving their mark on the art form, and on the critics, and the journalists and all that, and making the genre special, you know?  I feel like I’m in that period when I’m seeing these guys play.  And this is far from the lull point, this is like the beginning of what is, for lack of a better expression, starting some shit.  And I think it’s beautiful!  I think it’s so beautiful.”

The contention that sometimes exists between jazz authoritarians and hip hop artists is an ironic kind for A Tribe Called Quest, who transfigured the genre specifically by marrying the two.  “For all those people who were hating on hop hip, you know, the purists…at some point it’s like you know, we really gotta turn that around,” asserts Muhammad.  We all come from the same place, and we have the same struggle and damn anyone for frowning upon the of growth of a culture, the musicians, the art form.  So I think you can definitely look back to the 1990s era of hip hip and say it really changed the mood or spirit of jazz.  For anyone who says something different, they’re just fronters…they’re haters.”

Drum Composers Series Part 3: Eric Harland

Photo Credit: John Rogers/WBGO

When I met with Eric Harland at the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca, I got a glimpse of a day in the life of jazz music’s most in-demand drummer.  He had just arrived to New York; his next east coast stop following a triple appearance at Newport Jazz Festival.  Harland, who is arguably the hardest working drummer in the jazz biz, played more drums in one day, than most play in a week.  I’ll give you the run down: As one-quarter of the co-led all-star ensemble, James Farm, Harland got started at one 1 PM.  Then, on to trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s group at 2:20 PM.  Then finally playing with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and tabla master Zakir Hussain at 4 PM.  One has to wonder how anyone can wear that many musical hats over the course of a few hours.

I got to ask him about it during sound check of his next performance; a live on-air double bill shared with saxophonist Marcus Strickland and produced by The Checkout’s Josh Jackson for WBGO and NPR Music.  I managed to whisk Harland away, while the rest of his quintet went over some charts.  On keeping it all together, Harland explains that the balance in his personal life helps keep his professional copiousness intact.  “Family gives me a sense of structure, a sense of center, and so if I’m working too much, then that starts to get compromised a little bit.  And you know, I enjoy the money and I enjoy the opportunity of playing, but having a family definitely gives me a deeper connection with music, and the people around the music.”  A father of two young children, Harland’s playing is further influenced by the experiences of parenthood.  “As a father, you make a lot more sacrifices than you would if you didn’t have children or didn’t have a spouse.  And I like taking care of people and nurturing others on stage and stuff.  As long as I keep it balanced and I’m eating [right] and stuff…it’s a beautiful paradise.”

Harland released his debut album Voyager (Space Time) last year to high praises.  The album features the fantastic ensemble of saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Julian Lage, and bassist Harish Raghavan.  An album of fiery (and mostly original) tunes, Harland enlightened about his beginnings as a composer.

“Coming from Houston, you always write,” says Harland.  “At least for me, because I started in the church, and so I’ve always kinda had this sound that I wanted to kind of bring to fruition through a band.  I think everyone has a sound that they really want to bring across…but it’s just [a matter of] how to do it, or having the vehicle to do it.”  Unbeknownst to their influence, Harland’s musical family helped drive him toward the drums.  “Piano is my first instrument.  [But] I didn’t pursue the piano because there were too many piano players in my family.  My mom is a piano player, my grandmother, my aunt was, my uncle…he could play piano but he was a trumpet player and a vocalist and stuff…and they were all vocalists as well.  So needless to say, when I was in the room trying to practice, there was all this critiquing going on.  Always someone over your shoulder like, ‘No that’s not right, you gotta play the scale like this.  Put your fingering like this.’  And I was like, you know what?  There was no room to explore…I would just wanna mess up for no reason and just see what that feels like.  So I was also kind of at the same time playing the drums, just kind of messing around with it.  And I think I had more freedom with the drums because no one really knew what was going on.”

Harland honed his skills while he attended Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA); a school unparalleled at preparing and producing some of the finest jazz musicians at the academic level.  Harland is in good company as drummers go, with Chris Dave and Kendrick Scott as fellow alumni.  By the time Harland graduated from high school, he had already won a plethora of awards, and was playing professionally.  Harland subsequently came to New York City on full scholarship to the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, and quickly became an in-demand drummer garnering a list of collaborators too extensive to complete.  To name (literally) a few: Wynton Marsalis, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, McCoy Tyner and Betty Carter, who Harland has a long-standing musical friendship with.  But it was his time with trumpeter extraordinaire Terence Blanchard that would develop Harland as a composer.

Transform was kind of like my first thoroughly thought out piece, you know, that I really had an idea for and I wrote it specifically for that band,” says Harland of his compositional contribution to Blanchard’s album Bounce.  Like, I had Terence in mind, I had [saxophonist] Brice Winston in mind.  [Bassist] Brandon Owens, at the time…and we even tried it a little bit before that.”

Harland also makes a point to discuss the importance of timing.  “Terence was on that edge of like ‘OK, I want to start welcoming other people’s tunes’ but he wasn’t quite ready yet, which was a good thing because I don’t think a lot of our tunes were ready,” confesses Harland.  “I think the change in personnel…also [his] working at the Monk Institute with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter].  That generation still being excited about new things, I think helped open his mind, which gave us the opportunity to write.”

Transform is a fast 7/4 anthem-like piece with strong sensibilities both rhythmically and lyrically.  On Voyager, Harland keeps these elements and  demonstrates his vast pen, with songs ranging from ethereal to explosive.  “I love melody,” says Harland.  “Those are the things that move me.  I mean drums really move me, but I don’t think as much as harmony.  So it’s amazing, drums were always an adjustment.  Like, I had to really learn how to play drums.  Because when I would listen to bands, I would never listen to the drummer.  The lyricism that was going on was more interesting to me than what the drummer would be doing.”

With such an illustrious career, Harland’s fairly recent emergence as a front man has surely been pondered.  Harland explains, “I prefer the background a little bit. I like to observe what’s going on and kinda fix it from the back.  The drums always seemed like a lot of chops, you play super-fast…it’s real showy…and you know, I had to kind of grow to be a showy person.  So I think that’s what took me so long as far as my band.  It took people going ‘Get out there!’  And sometimes you need that because you never know your potential until you really get out there and explore the things that need to be explored.  Just exploring yourself.  I think that’s what life is about.  Just discovering who you are…this time.”

In my examining the composing drummer, I am always fascinated about the process of writing.  As a composer, Harland draws from his complete musical wellness, in addition to the opportunities presented from modern technology.  “At first it started at the piano because that’s what I love,” says Harland.  “But then with all the notation software and stuff like that, you have the freedom to be like a painter, where a painter can just throw paint on the canvas, and then try to find the beauty within the chaos that’s just been presented to him or that he sees.  Well, with the notation software, sometimes I experiment with kind of throwing notes on the page.  Seeing how that sounds, and then orchestrating from a different angel.  Because it gives me a different thing to think about.  And plus it gives me something I would have never come up with unless I took that chance to do that.  Then sometimes I compose from the drums.  I think of some really fun rhythmic idea I really want to do, and then I just mess around with it.”

L-R: Matt Penman, Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks and Eric Harland. (Photo by Jimmy Katz)

Now with an established body of work, it’s full steam ahead for Harland as an artist.  In addition to his own group, Harland is also busy with James Farm; a co-led ensemble of musicians at the height of their powers, which includes saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, and bassist Matt Penman.  The band released their self-titled album in April, and it received critical acclaim across musical boards; a reflection of the goal of the record.  This album speaks to jazz audiences, but not exclusively.  The music is warm, cohesive, and fresh with a perfect balance of intention and profuse unrestraint; a harmony as intriguing as their collective name.

“It’s an acronym,” Harland reveals.  “Josh, Aaron, Matt, and Eric.  The “S” is just the plural form of the name.  Like James’ Farm, but we just left out the apostrophe.  And then “Farm” was just a way to try to describe what we wanted to do.  When you think about a farm, it’s nurturing , organic, something that feeds the body, cultivation, harvest, seed planting…you know. These were things that we felt really related to the style of music we wanted to do.”

As for what’s next for the man who is everywhere doing everything, Harland gives some insight, “I have a certain sound in my head.  So, you know, I think maybe that just comes with age, as I’m getting older….What am I gonna do now?  And then it’s always good to just kind of  have a change to do something different.  I have some ideas…they haven’t been ironed out yet.  I definitely have this one song that I want James Taylor to sing.  But I love taking my time.  I’m like a slow mule…like, I want to just think about it for a while.  When it’s right, I mean it’s just gonna soar.  Because when you develop a sense of trust in something greater, versus it’s just you, because as gratifying as that may feel, it also beings about pressure, feeling like you have to do it.  As long as my desire is there and I can act upon that, it’s going to be beautiful.”

Kenneth Whalum III: Beyond the Hype

Photo by J. Shotti

It’s no secret that while jazz has always been high on substance, it offers fame and fortune to but a few.  Ultimate freedom of expression comes at a high price; a double-edged sword for many jazz musicians who sometimes struggle to enjoy financial fruits that can parallel their artistic ones.

Saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III has performed, recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in music.  From Puff Daddy and Jay-Z, to Maxwell and Mary J. Blige, Whalum is emerging as one of the most in-demand horn players in Black popular music.  He is also the nephew of smooth jazz recording artist and eight-time Grammy © nominee and 2011 recipient, Kirk Whalum.  When deciding to record his debut album, To Those Who Believe, it would have been easy for Whalum to rely on his impressive Rolodex of platinum-selling musical associates, celebrity mentors, or wildly successful family members.  But Kenneth Whalum III has boldly stepped on the scene as a man who walks to the beat of his own drum, deciding that greener pastures aren’t always necessarily found in the comforts of the status quo.

“I wanna play music that’s true to me, and other lanes aren’t really for me,” Whalum explains about his decision to release a jazz album for his first recording as a leader.  I caught up with him last week in Brooklyn during a short break from his current gig with hip-hop superstar Ludacris, whom Whalum is currently working for as Musical Director.  “I can’t fake it, you know what I mean?  So, I just play what I hear and what is given to me and what just touches me. It could have been pop or R&B or whatever, but it wasn’t.”

On To Those Who Believe, Whalum enlists the talents of his musical comrades: pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave (also three quarters of the Robert Glasper Experiment).  The four initially developed a musical relationship while touring with R&B crooner Maxwell.  Each band leaders in their own right, and each straddling between jazz and other musical aesthetics, this was an important commonality to Whalum.  “The fact is that I’m more comfortable with them because they’re not so set to one thing, and the truth is I’m not set to one thing…at all.  As a matter of fact, I’m newest to [jazz].  So, more than anything, we’re just all like…we have a great relationship. We’re just brothers, we act a fool, and I wouldn’t rather have anybody else in there, so I was blessed to have them to be able to do it and be willing to help me get my message out.”

Photo by Angelika Beener

Whalum’s message is one that is rooted in his faith, family, and his artistry, which developed in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.  The son of a well-respected preacher, Whalum began playing in the church.  “I just think growing up, there was a mix of the music and the culture and just the people…it really helped me to just become a well-rounded person.  A lot of times I remember things and different things pull on me artistically, and all of that comes from growing up there, playing on Beale Street, playing the blues all the time.”

Whalum transferred from Morehouse College in Atlanta, to The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, where he began to hone his skills, taking the idea of becoming a professional musician a lot more seriously.  It is here that he also began playing jazz.  “[In Memphis] there wasn’t a jazz scene — period.  I can remember asking a cat how do you play double-time and he’s looking at me like…nobody knew [laughs] so it wasn’t until I got to New York that I really started to be able to grow in music.”

Whalum’s first professional gigs were backing up fellow Memphis natives like Al Green and Isaac Hayes, but a phone call from the musical director for hip-hop mogul P. Diddy, would change the course of Whalum’s career.  “Nissan Stewart called me.  He was the MD for Puff at the time.  For some reason Puff had fired his horn section, so we went in and he ended up liking us, and then from that we became really cool, so it was like the snow ball effect.  I would hang out with him aside from music.  He co-produced American Gangster, and he called me in to do some horns for “Roc Boys” and that was a huge hit.  So when it came time to do the video and shit like that, and for Jay’s tour, he brought me along as well.  Your credibility just goes up, regardless if other people have heard you or not, and people like me as a person, because I’m just chill or whatever it is.”

With an established reputation in the hip-hop and pop arenas, Whalum has since taken on the jazz realm, with the release of To Those Who Believe, which spent an impressive three weeks at #1 on the iTunes jazz chart.  Released independently, and self-produced (with Glasper as co-producer) Whalum is determined to get your attention without calling your attention to all of the pretty lights surrounding him.  “I don’t think I’ve ever introduced myself by my whole name.  I just have always been a kind of stubborn cat; I always wanna be myself.  I don’t want people to judge me based on anything. I’d rather be low key than be known for something that has nothing to do with me.”

To Those Who Believe is a superbly executed hybrid of a panorama of Black music; all of which speak to Whalum’s personal story.  The album opens up with a gorgeous hymn-like chant, with portions of one of his father’s sermons floating throughout.  Whalum also briefly showcases his vocal talent, which he modestly downplays, on a larger scale.  “I don’t feel like just because I can sing, I should; that’s not killing.  I like to respect everybody’s lane.  Like LeBron going to the Heat, and being like ‘Oh, I think I’ll get a ring now…’  But it never really works out well, because you have to have respect for whatever game you’re playing, whether it be music, acting…I just like to respect that.”  The hard-swinging “STS” is reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Mr. Knight” with Glasper delving into his inner McCoy Tyner and Whalum reveling in its blues-based form.  Much of the album has a meditative quality that speaks to Whalum’s spiritual foundation.  “My influence is one of my favorite records, which is [John Coltrane’s] Crescent.  That record never gets old to me.  Regardless to what kind of mood I’m in, I can listen to Crescent.  It’s so thoughtful.”

Stepping out onto new musical territory has proved a wise decision for Whalum, not only because of the certain promise for this rising talent, but also because his range of experience and ability can help continue to garner a younger, Blacker jazz audience — a sorely needed advancement.  On the sometimes sticky subject of the interfusion within jazz, Whalum offers some sobering advice.

“I think everybody needs to fucking relax because there is no money – period.  People fight to make themselves the only person in a certain lane, but that’s not really how it ever was.  That’s why back in the day you got all kinds of cats on one record, doing records together.  You don’t really get that anymore.  You may get Wynton doing records with country artists but I mean working together. Which is why I was glad to have Rob [Glasper].  Rob is a star, and he didn’t mind helping me…that kind of thing.  I think the fact that we understand that sentiment, helps us.  Not that we’re where we could be, but we don’t mind where we are.  Everybody’s got to relax.  I don’t mind what anybody’s doing.  The level of appreciation for everything can always lead you to a better place.  You’re thinking that this is the only way?  This isn’t the only way at all.  I just think we need to appreciate each other more.  We all have different things to say and I don’t think it’s fair to judge anybody.  Cats judge all day.  I think that’s the wrong way.  The older jazz head fans are slimming out, so now the message has to be straight up what you got to say and either people gonna like it or they’re not.”

Photo by Eric Johnson

Whalum’s perspective is well beyond his twenty-some-odd years; likely due to his early exposure to the music business and his rock-solid foundation.  And it is this security that is undoubtedly in-part responsible for his decision to play jazz.  When you’re not phased by the hype, you can hear yourself better and have a clearer path to your individual calling.  Moreover, so many of our Black musicians are confined to the church and popular music, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that reality, the exposure to the totality of our culture will produce more Black participants and a broader support system.  Whalum is a shining example of the endless possibilities.

“I feel really blessed to be able to be able to be doing so much work because I swear…I didn’t even do music.  I went to Morehouse and I transferred to New School.  So I was just partying and now to have all this stuff going on it really is something I never…I thought about playing but it was never serious. So now it’s really serious.  I go places and people know me.  This cat just recently walked up to me talking about how he liked my record.  So whether people know it or not, I really am happy to be here.  I’m really happy to be having this stuff going on.  I don’t take it for granted.  I’m really just trying to believe it.  God is good for real.” ♦

Kenneth Whalum III performs tomorrow, June 21 at the Apple Store (Upper West Side) in NYC as part of Black Music Month.  Personnel: Kenneth Whalum (Saxophones), Robert Glasper (piano), Burniss Earl Travis (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums).  Showtime 7pm.