Kirk Whalum (KW): Hey, Smitty…appreciate the love and what occurs when I take from your words, my friend.
Smitty: Oh, man. Well, the pleasure’s all mine. And hey, I’m loving this new record, Roundtrip.
KW: Thank you, sir. Yeah, this is definitely a—in one sense, it’s a really, really selfish record because I wanted to be able to go back and revisit some of the classic songs that kinda helped me get started and then to venture into some new areas and then end up right where we started.
Smitty: Yeah. Well, right away I loved the opening track, “Courtney,” and I know there’s some serious great personal history with this song.
KW: Absolutely, in fact, for two reasons: one, because it was written for our first daughter and her name is Courtney and she’s 29 now, she’s just wonderful, and she’s given us a beautiful little five-year-old grandson and we’re just in love with him too, but as well, that song represents a whole cadre of songs that we never got a chance to record. Like many artists would say that they’ve got songs that they wanted to record and they never got around to it or for one reason or another it didn’t make the record. That song “Courtney” represents all of those songs for me.
Smitty: Oh, wow, man. Well, that’s really putting it right next to the heart, you know?
KW: Yeah, that’s right.
Smitty: Absolutely. Now, Kirk, just looking back on your career, I mean, you have 17 albums and I can go back to those humble days in Houston when you were gigging at The Roof back in the seventies and Cody’s and just doing your thing at TSU, and I can see why you have Roundtrip stamped on this record because, man, you’ve come full circle in many ways.
KW: That’s so true, Smitty, and I am honored that you remember those days in Houston. In fact, as you said, that song “Courtney” and even “Ruby Ruby Ruby” and “Desperately,” they are songs on this record that represent those days and that’s why I’m excited to share them with the folks, unlike yourself, who weren’t there and like “Oh yeah, Kirk Whalum, he’s a recording artist.” Oh, no, no. Kirk Whalum back then was a student and trying to get something going, I had my band, and so, yeah, these songs represent that era in my career.
Smitty: Yeah, and I truly remember those songs, you know, “The Wave” and…
KW: That’s right.
Smitty: And those early days with Bob James…
KW: That’s right.
Smitty: Those were some beautiful times and the music reflects that, my friend.
KW: Yeah, thank you so much, man.
Smitty: Yeah, and you’ve got some great friends along the way on this record as well, so just covering all of that territory, I mean, you know, with Gerald Albright and remembering Grover. I mean, that’s a beautiful way to do a record, I think.
KW: It is and it’s a very personal thing. I’m alternating kind of on these records where one record I’ll do just totally for the listener. In other words, I put myself way behind, like if there’s a song that I feel like they might like that was originally sung by Lionel Richie or whomever—I never recorded any of his songs (both laugh)—but whoever, then I’ll put that on that record. That, for instance, was a record called For You. And then I’ll turn around and do a record that is more autobiographical, songs that I’ve written or had written for me, and so that was, for instance, Unconditional, Into My Soul. And then we go back and do The Babyface Songbook, which, again, is back to my versions of songs that other people have done. And then back to this record now, to Roundtrip, which is all about, once again, songs that I’ve either written or were written for me.
Smitty: Yeah, that title track. Talk a little bit about that because I think that is probably the most unique song, or one of them—I think they’re all unique—but I think that one’s very unique in that family’s here now, you know? This is a family thing.
KW: That’s right, that’s right. And funny too because that song, just speaking of the song, I sang that melody into my telephone, like just the little memo thing on my phone…
KW: …while I was driving one day in Memphis. And Memphis is like that. I mean, there’s music in the air and you can just pull a song out of the air kinda, and I don’t want to make it sound too simple, but it’s absolutely in the air and on the Mississippi River and Stax Records and Sun Records and all of that. But when I did that song, when I wrote it, I said, “Man, this will be a great avenue to include my family.” I come from a musical family and literally all the way back to both my grandmothers. One was a gospel singer, the other taught piano and voice and led the choir, and I have an uncle who was the Dean of Music at Morehouse [College] until he passed away, Dr. Wendell P. Whalum, and lots of family members who play and sing, and so when I decided to do this particular thing, I said “I’m gonna make a Whalum fest, man.”
Smitty: Yeah, I like that.
KW: And my Uncle Peanuts was recording and touring finally, after being sequestered in the music scene of St. Louis for literally 60 years. He’s 79 years old, man, and he sounds incredible, and he even has his own CD on Rendezvous as well.
Smitty: Yeah, I know, that’s so cool.
KW: But he’s featured on this, I’ve got my brother Kevin, who sings with me a lot and who is indeed working on his own project right now with George Duke.
Smitty: Oh, that should be cool.
KW: And then I’ve got my son Kyle, who plays bass and arguably, because I’m his dad, is one of the finest bass players I’ve played with, and that has been seconded by a few people who’ve been taking him out, out of my reach, to Japan and London and all over, but he’s been touring with me, so he’s on there, and then my nephew is an amazing saxophonist who is touring with P. Diddy right now, but I stole him for a minute. He’s in school in New York studying and just sounding great, so this is kind of a launch pad for a couple of these guys.
Smitty: Yeah, man.
KW: And there’s more in the wings, man, so stay tuned.
Smitty: Oh, very cool. But Kirk, it’s not just that you just pulled in some family members. These guys are talented, man. These cats can play.
KW: Yeah, thank you, man, and that is absolutely a revelation that I had at one point, helped along by my friend Hyman Katz at Rendezvous Records, because I was, you know, I’m like, eh, that’s hokey. You don’t want to just “Okay, so I think my uncle’s great, I think my brother and my son’s great,” but I don’t want to push them off on people and whatever, and Hyman was like “Man, listen, if they’re good, they’re good. It doesn’t matter that they happen to be related to you.”
Smitty: Absolutely, I totally agree.
KW: And that’s what we’ve been doing.
Smitty: And coming from the Midwest myself, I totally identify with the vibe, but I think this is just a very international record in that the vibe is there that everyone can enjoy. I have relatives in Memphis, I grew up in St. Louis and have been in Memphis more times than I can remember.
Smitty: And so I can feel that vibe and that love from the Memphis sound and that kind of thing, but just looking at it from a wider perspective, I think this is a great record that everyone’s gonna enjoy, yeah.
KW: Oh, I appreciate that, I really do.
Smitty: Yeah, man, because it’s a beautiful mix of music and it’s retrospective, but yet it’s “now” too. It’s not just something that you’re going back, but I think it’s a sound that in this here and now we can definitely appreciate and enjoy.
KW: Oh, I definitely appreciate that and that’s kind of our—our intention was to take the templates of these older songs and totally re-imagine them, re-do them, so that they have a “now” feeling to them, and with the help of some great producers—Philippe Saisse and James McMillan from England, Philippe is from France, Rex Rideout, my buddy Gary Goin of the David Porter school of production—so, yeah, it’s really been great.
Smitty: Yeah. Let me ask you a question. I’ve been asking everybody this. I’m doing this until Rex hits me over the head when he sees me again. (Both laugh.) When are we gonna get Rex to do another Club 1600?
KW: Wow, see, you got me, man. We may have to just tie him down.
Smitty: Yeah. (Laughs.)
KW: You know?
Smitty: Well, because it was such a beautiful record and whenever I talk about it, I say “Yeah, Mr. Club 1600, I’m waiting on another one.”
KW: Right, I’m sure he’d probably go “Oh, man, I don’t have time to blow my nose, let alone do my own record.”
Smitty: Yeah, I know, and he’s just done some incredible work and I know it had to be a pleasure to work with all of these great producers.
KW: It really was.
Smitty: Yeah, and you have one of my friends on this record, and I want to talk about this spoken word thing because I think it’s a welcome and beautiful addition to this record, and that’s the lovely Ms. Kim Fields, the actress.
KW: That’s right, man.
Smitty: And she did some wonderful work as well [“In A Whisper”].
KW: Yeah, I was so glad to see that come together. You know how some ideas, you get people who say “Well, now, are you sure that’s gonna…” and “Will it stretch the audience too far?” and blah-blah-blah. I’m like, man, you gotta take some risks, and that was a risk I was glad to take because Kim is so well-loved and I don’t think many people—certainly not enough people—know that side of her.
KW: They know her as an actress but, man, she’s really incredible with spoken word.
Smitty: Yes, she is, wow. And she’s just talented in so many ways. She does so many things.
Smitty: As far as the arts are concerned, you know?
KW: Yeah, yeah, that’s true.
Smitty: And you gotta appreciate that, yeah. I really think that this will be one of the top albums of the year, my friend.
KW: Well, we’re definitely excited about it.
Smitty: Kirk, also, you were at the North Sea Jazz Festival and I got to hear some of that great sax sound over there. Talk a little bit about that experience because that was beautiful, wasn’t it?
KW: Well, I, first of all, enjoyed the cruise. That was just a wonderful experience and I think maybe the first time of all the cruises that I’ve been fortunate to do—and there have been a lot of them—this one I actually got some rest on (both laugh), on a personal note, so that was nice. But to be there with Marcus Miller, who is one of my favorite musicians in the world.
Smitty: Oh, yeah. I second that.
KW: That was a truly rich experience and the way the concept of that was to really, you know, no holds barred in terms of what is it? Smooth Jazz? Is it straight ahead? It was all of that. And so that was a joy for me, and Ruby and I had a great time, and to end up at the festival, which again is one of the premier jazz festivals of the world.
KW: And Rotterdam, it was just amazing to be able to—and by the way, I did that festival many times, but years ago I did it when Miles [Davis] was still alive and got a chance to see him at the North Sea Festival. I played that festival with Bob James for my very first time there back in ’85 or ’86, but then to see Sly Stone live this year, it was incredible.
Smitty: It was, I tell ya, man, and it was a great time. And the people there are just beautiful. Man, I tell ya, I just can’t get over the love that I experienced with my new Dutch friends.
KW: The respect, yeah.
Smitty: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Kirk, once again, be it one album or 17, you have done it again, my friend, and I am loving this new record and I certainly anticipate a lot of attention with this. I think people are gonna embrace this with open arms and I anticipate a lot of love, my brother.
KW: Yeah, well, man, I really appreciate you saying that and, again, it’s just from the heart.
KW: So if it reaches a few hearts, then that will be just fine with me.
Smitty: Absolutely, man. The record is called Roundtrip. We’ve been talking with the incredible and so personable Kirk Whalum and I’m always loving his vibe and it just gets better with this great record. Kirk, thanks again, man, and all the best with this record and your tour in 2007 and beyond, my friend.
KW: Thank you, sir, and I’ll look forward to seeing you soon.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith