Kirk Whalum stepping into the Coltrane role to remake John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman is rather like getting Norman Rockwell to reinterpret van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The results are undeniably pretty but rather pointless. To fill the Hartman half of the equation, Whalum has chosen his kid brother Kevin. Hartman, though never the most adventurous of interpreters, was a straight-A student of the Billy Eckstine school.
The summit with Coltrane, his only recording as leader with a vocalist, was surprising but tremendously effective, the pair striking an ideal balance: an elegantly subdued Coltrane the circling moth to Hartman’s steady flame. The Whalum brothers fit together equally well, Kevin’s butterscotch vocals, reminiscent of Luther Vandross, blending with Kirk’s liquid-honey licks. But across all six standards that shaped the Hartman-Coltrane masterpiece, Kevin casts them in the same burnished romantic glow, failing to recognize, as Hartman did, that “They Say It’s Wonderful” is one of the saddest love songs ever written and that “Lush Life” is rooted in tragicomic self-pity.
The Coltrane-Hartman album spanned just 31 minutes, and it takes the Whalum brothers only five additional minutes to cover those six songs. To fill out the album, Kirk adds a trio of buttery instrumental ballads—“I Wish I Wasn’t,” “Spend My Life With You” and the gently funkified “I Wanna Know.” But the standout bonus, indeed the album’s most interesting track, is a gruffly tender reworking of Brandy’s “Almost Doesn’t Count” from Kirk and Kevin’s gravel-voiced uncle, Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum.