Kirk Whalum: The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter IV

Kirk Whalum’s commitment is beyond question. He’s an ordained minister who puts in long, righteous hours as a volunteer at Manna House, an agency in Memphis that serves the homeless. And although his smooth-jazz aesthetic tends toward the less-than-challenging, he’s also a dedicated musician-even at his most florid and pop-sweetened (e.g., his famous sax break on Whitney Houston’s megahit “I Will Always Love You”) he pours heart, soul and sinew into every note.

It’s that “less-than-challenging” part, though, that may give pause. This two-disc set, recorded live at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, is the latest installment in Whalum’s ongoing Gospel According to Jazz series. A listener seeking the kind of soul-cleansing fusion of spiritual and musical transcendence that permeates, say, Ellington’s sacred works (or even a good Mavis Staples performance) may not find it here. For the most part, neither Whalum’s music nor his message compels us to confront any kind of spiritual, aesthetic or existential reckoning.

Whalum casts an admirably wide net-the program includes offerings from the likes of Paul and Linda McCartney (“Let ‘Em In”), the Foo Fighters (“My Hero”) and Curtis Mayfield (“Keep on Pushing”), as well as originals and a few standard hymns. Aside from a meditative “Ave Maria,” played unaccompanied by flugelhornist Rick Braun, and a similarly stripped-down reading of the hymn “Just As I Am” by Whalum and pianist John Stoddart, the overall feel is one of sophisticated pop-funk laced with devotional serenity. A partial exception is “Un Amore Supremo,” an Afro-Cuban reworking of A Love Supreme on which Whalum contributes some of his most focused and adventurous playing, especially in his culminating smear-and-scream ascent. Vocalist Shelea brings a stark meld of desolation and militancy to “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”; the roiling interchange between Whalum’s sax and Stoddard’s piano in “Triage” approaches cathartic intensity-one of the few such moments on offer.

Other outings, including the closing “Love Is the Answer,” are somewhat less convincing. The lyrics to “Love Is the Answer” are as clichéd as the title, and they’re further compromised by non sequiturs (“When you’re all alone, love one another”). The music, though toughened somewhat by horn thrusts reminiscent of Willie Mitchell’s classic-era soul arrangements, is likewise earnest, infused with righteous intent-and very, very safe.