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Saxophonist Kirk Whalum's Babyface Songbook

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ED GORDON, host:

You might recognize this tune. It's "Whip Appeal," a song penned by the prolific R&B songwriter Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds. Only this version is translated through the prism of smooth jazz. Saxophonist Kirk Whalum is out with a new sampling of music from the "Babyface Songbook." I found out that Whalum has an affinity not only for the melodies of Edmonds but for his lyrics as well.

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Mr. KIRK WHALUM (Jazz Saxman): The lyrics are so strong I think sometimes we forget just how beautiful and impactful the melodies are. So it's been not only great making the record, it's been even more fun performing the songs on the road.

GORDON: Which of the songs on there did you know you could not not do?

Mr. WHALUM: For sure, I had to do "I Said I Love You." As I played these melodies, Ed, I would actually sort of meditate on the message, on the lyric. The song "I Said I Love You" is really axiomatic to who I am because my life, really, it's about relationships both vertical and horizontal. And, you know, to talk about love in such an elevated way, to talk about--you know, he says, `I said I love you. I said I care,' when I promise I love you, that means--or, you can say, translate into, `I will always be there.' So, you know, that, of course, from a horizontal point of view, I think, is tremendous, and of course I just celebrated 25 years of an amazing relationship. We got married again, the whole thing, but then, you know, there's the vertical aspect of it, of a relationship with God which, for me is--you know, he's the only one who when he says, `I will never abandon you, I will never forsake you,' he actually means it 'cause on horizontal we can screw that up. If somebody messes up bad enough, we will have to leave them in the dust, but he will never leave me. And that song--I guess you could start with that song, saying that's the one I had to do.

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Mr. WHALUM: (Singing) I tell you I love you. Cross my heart, I will be there.

GORDON: We had Face on with us not too long ago and one of the things that he talked about is, and you as a musician know this, you don't always know which is the one, you know, and sometimes you have them sitting on the shelf for a minute and thinking that the one you picked was better and ultimately the real pearl was the one you put aside for a second. So as you know, sometimes, except for those that are given to you divinely, if you will...

Mr. WHALUM: Right.

GORDON: ...it can be a hit-or-miss proposition.

Mr. WHALUM: That's true.

GORDON: I want to talk to you a little bit about your spirituality and the like. I know of members of your family in Memphis and I know that you come from not only a very musical family but a very spiritual family. Talk to me about the relationship not only for you and your spirituality but the connection of spirituality in music for you.

Mr. WHALUM: It's funny, too, because I never--I didn't start out with that in mind. I was--you know, I wanted to learn how to play saxophone and that's still an endeavor of mine, you know, and really I was then and I am now a jazz musician by trade or vocation. You know, that's my field of expertise as it were. And yet my life, my heart, my saxophone, everything belongs to the Lord Jesus. So that kind of makes me a kind of odd, you know, commodity. I guess, you know, I'm a little too worldly for some Christians and I'm a little too, you know, religious, you know, for others. So it's great. I like that position, and definitely if today I get a chance to make a record of love songs, you know, the music of Babyface, I feel fulfilled. If tomorrow I get to make the Gospel according to jazz, Chapter 3, I'm fulfilled. You know, it's really just sort of different manifestations of who I am.

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GORDON: I would think for you as a jazz musician--throughout your career, you worked with greats like Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau, Barbra Streisand, Luther and also with the great Whitney Houston, it must be, I would think for someone who loves music, a kick to sit back when you allow yourself to pat yourself on the back and say, `You know, that ain't so bad.'

Mr. WHALUM: I don't so much pat myself on the back as I pinch myself, saying, `Man, look at me, you know, to be able to, for instance, stand behind Whitney Houston for seven years and she's an incredible lady.' And one of the stories that I always tell is that to play the solo in "I Will Always Love You," arguably, you know, one of the biggest songs ever recorded, the reason I'm on that record was because she put her foot down. She said, `You know, I'm going to do this big song. I'm doing it live to the recording. I want my band there.' You know, it was more like kind of, `I need my support system.' You know, the producers were, like, `Well, you know, I'll tell you what.' You know, they're, like, treating her like a diva. You know, `Well, no, we'll take care of it. We'll have the best of the best. We'll do a track and we'll have this track. That way we're not worried about anything.' She said, `Well, you make a track. Find the guys you're going to use and then find a singer because if I sing it, my band's going to be there.' So to this day, I owe that to her to be able to say that I was a part of that because she said, `No, I want these guys,' you know?

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GORDON: Before we let you go, Kirk, I want to take you back to what could be detrimental about the new project and that is though there is some background singing and the like on the new CD, "The Songbook of Babyface,"(ph) most of it is instrumental. Yet you have to know with the grand lyrics that Face has given us through the years--you know, there's a bunch of folk at home singing that as if in full volume they're leading the band. You know that, right?

Mr. WHALUM: That's right. They'll be singing along. In fact, that's one of the things I say in the liner, you know, that--I say, `Feel free to sing along,' because really that's what I'm doing with the instrument as I'm singing those lyrics and they're going through my head. You know, when I recorded "Not Goin Cry," you know, that Mary J. Blige did such an amazing job on, I'm thinking about that lyric. You know, she said, `You know what? Explain to me this part. You know, you said, you know, "Through sickness and health, death do us part," those were the words you said from your heart. Well, now that you say you're leaving me, I don't get that part, you know?' And those are things that, you know, were going through my head as I played. I'm, like, `That's really not fair, you know, to misrepresent yourself like that. You know, you said you were in for the long run.' So there's great messages on that record.

GORDON: Well, indeed, great songs from great modern day songwriter and a great songwriter of all time, Babyface, performed by one of the great saxophone players of today, Kirk Whalum. The CD is called "Kirk Whalum: Performs the Babyface Songbook."

Kirk, good to talk with you today, man.

Mr. WHALUM: It's really my pleasure, Ed. I appreciate it.

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GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today.

To listen to this show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.