Anyone who has heard Top 40 radio in the past half-century knows his work, although few know his name. The soaring strains of Kirk Whalum on saxophone have backed up countless radio hits for decades, notably Whitney Houston’s No. 1 single “I Will Always Love You.”
But the Memphis musician would rather be known for how his melodies originate in the church. With his new album Humanité, Whalum embarks on a project to bridge cultures and connect countries, with his Christian faith and free-flowing music as catalysts.
“Our efforts with these songs and words tie intrinsically to what the gospel is actually about,” said Whalum, the son of a pastor. “The gospel has always addressed really important things that people say are ‘not related’ to it. For instance, writers of Scripture addressed oppression, current political situations taking place, and prophecies that had to do with politics.”
Released in October, Humanité features over a dozen emerging and established music artists who were recorded in nearly as many nations. Listeners encounter superstar vocalist and guitarist Zahara from South Africa, Japan’s jazz pianist Keiko Matsui, then premier U.K. jazz singer Liane Carroll — and that’s in just three of the album’s 14 tracks. A documentary crew followed Whalum’s globe-trotting recording sessions, with a film about his journeys premiering online and available for purchase December 3.
The film, titled “Humanite: The Beloved Community,” reveals the progress of Whalum’s vision from three decades ago. “As part of that Promise Keepers movement during the 1990s, I toured with one of their worship bands,” he said.
“At that time, I thought the concept of reconciliation was the ultimate thing — to be reconciled,” Whalum explained. “Now I look back on that and think: I’m glad we did those gatherings. But there was some work we needed to do before we ever get to the point of endeavoring to ‘reconcile.’ The first thing is understanding.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Whalum discusses the racially motivated violence he experienced as a child, why racism persists, and how his new project brings illumination amid dark times. It has been lightly edited for length.