Given a name like Kirk Whalum, it would be unlikely for a jazz saxophonist to be anything but a hard swinger, a groover, a, yes, wailer. Thursday night at Concerts by the Sea, new arrival Whalum delivered what his name promised.
In his first appearance in Los Angeles, the 27-year-old Tennessean (by way of Texas) displayed a warm, accessible style that blended Memphis rhythm and blues with the gutsy Lone Star tenor saxophone tradition of Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Budd Johnson.
But it was obvious from his first note that Whalum's most appealing quality, the center of his music, is a gift for melody. Original pieces, mostly drawn from a new album, overflowed with the kind of singable, easily memorable lines that make for chart hits.
"Kyle's Smiles," dedicated to his son, was honey-in-the-horn smooth and lyrical. "Afterthought" ran the gamut of emotions in a romantic relationship, from warm compliance to passionate interaction. "Time I Learned" was made for late-night dancing; like many other Whalum tunes, it cries for lyrics.
What makes Whalum special, however, is the fact that he is neither just a melodic player nor just another faceless jazzman. An up-tempo romp through the complex harmonies of "Cherokee" revealed an ability to combine gospel passion with bebop articulation. And a tongue-in-cheek sendup of TV and movie themes (including whimsical variations on "Mission Impossible," "The Pink Panther" and "Goldfinger") suggested a sophisticated programming sense rare in \o7 any\f7 jazzman.
Remember the name--Kirk Whalum. It's going to be around for a long time.