That statement might sound downright incorrect at first. And, I could see why one would believe that. He sells a lot of records, played with Whitney Houston, and is better known among the general public than a lot of saxophonists on the scene today. Still, I stand by my statement: Kirk Whalum is one of the most underrated saxophonists around.
I've noticed that in the jazz community, particularly "jazz academia" certain musical elements are given a higher priority than others. Playing dense harmonies, playing in odd meters, and making your music less accessible to non-musicians are certainly all the rage in some communities. Oftentimes elements such as tone, groove, and "saying something" are neglected. These musical traits are where Kirk excels.
Though labeled as a smooth jazz saxophonist, Kirk brings a lot more to the table than others who are lumped into the same category. Even though he doesn't always show it off, he has technique to spare and can hang in just about any setting. I've heard fans of his say "check him out playing straight-ahead jazz." Here's a video of him playing Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge."
He sounds great--and I'm sure any of you who have played this tune before know that it isn't easy. He approaches the tricky harmonies in a very melodic way as opposed to just running scales/wiggling his fingers.
The solo almost has sort of a "Branford" quality to it, though Kirk is clearly his own man.
As much as I like his straight-ahead playing--I like how he approaches pop tunes even more. DISCLAIMER: I love pop music and have know regrets about it! Check this out--he's playing one of Kenneth Edmonds's best tunes (aka Babyface...one of the best songwriters in the R&B genre).
What a great vibe! I would LOVE to be able to play this way.
Until next time--happy listening and be well!