“I Just Hear the Instruments, I Don’t Hear Genres”: An Interview With Kenneth Whalum

“These instruments are living things.”
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“These instruments are living things.”

Chances are, you’ve been listening to Kenneth Whalum for a long time. While his big-name credits can be traced back to 2007 and JAY-Z’s American Gangster album, Kenneth’s musical origins can be traced even further back to his childhood in the church. Hailing from Memphis, Kenneth grew up playing drums before following his uncle’s lead and pursuing the saxophone.

Kenneth’s musical prowess has taken him on tours with Frank Ocean, D’Angelo, Maxwell and, of course, JAY-Z. He’s taken his time studying the way these artists perform and build atmospheres that translate from the album to the arena. All the while, Kenneth was tapping into his own emotional wellspring. The saxophone was offering him a limited color palette, so much so that Kenneth "wanted to almost cry through [his] saxophone."

He turned to the pen, but rather than write within the confines of a single genre or texture, Kenneth wrote towards a feeling. The music came as a natural accompaniment.

That’s how we arrive at his newest album, Broken Land, which Kenneth describes as an “audio movie.” Released on July 14, the record’s catalyst is an altruistic one: “My experiences in life were building up, and I realized that if I don’t find a way to tell this story, somebody won’t be helped and I won’t be helped.” The album is a testament to finding beauty within the ashes of heartbreak, with celestial R&B vocals weaving into more sinuous jazz melodies.

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From our conversation, I understood Kenneth Whalum to be a meticulous musician. He doesn’t mince his words or waste a moment, explaining, “If I’m going to talk at all, I’m going to be honest.” He doesn’t lament over a song but is dedicated to giving himself to every musical movement on the album. Vulnerability excites him, and as a result, the pain and resolve of Broken Land will haunt listeners in the best ways.

Kenneth and I discussed his musical beginnings, his time spent touring with the majors, and the emotions as well as the process behind painting the picture of Broken Land.

Let’s start with some background. Where do you get your love of music?

I wasn’t one of those kids that was singing into a brush, but I was always around music. I’m from Memphis, which is a musical city, and my uncle is a touring musician. I played drums in my dad’s church when I was a kid. I thought I would continue on drums when I got to band class, but my teacher was familiar with my uncle, who played sax. So she basically pushed me to pursue the saxophone. I followed that path and moved to New York later on and it when well. When I started wanting to express more of my feelings, I realized that I need words. I was finding that I couldn’t express myself fully just using a saxophone. So I just started to write songs, just to get certain feelings out. Then, I chose to start singing. I got a lot of good practice just singing on tour with Maxwell.

What emotions are easier to communicate instrumentally as opposed to vocally?

For instance, listening to John Coltrane, I feel the spirit he is trying to evoke. Even though it’s without words in most cases, I still feel it. That was his particular paint that he wanted to use with his painting. I tried that, and I was getting certain pieces together, but it was getting to a point where I wanted to almost cry through my saxophone sometimes. I had these words and stories, and I was hitting the ceiling—so to speak—on my sax. So I started writing, so I could sing it, and then find the sound that makes sense. I didn’t wanna just do jazz or something that wasn’t original to this feeling and sound that I was hearing in my head.

Prior to Broken Land, you’ve toured with some big names. What did you learn from touring with the likes of Frank Ocean and D'Angelo?

The blessing of being able to perform with these guys is the fact that I was a big fan of them anyway. I like their music, and what they get across. So I paid close attention to everything: how they prepare, how they approach the show, how diligent they are to the elements of their shows. I watched the way they were able to get the point across from the original song into the performance, and all of the steps they took to make sure that nothing gets cheapened during the creative process.

We can also find your sax playing on 4:44, specifically “Bam.” How did you and JAY-Z initially connect?

I was originally working with Puff Daddy, and he was co-producing the American Gangster album for Jay. So he just hit me on my phone and told me that he needs me at the studio, they’re working on some top secret album, and I got there and it was Jay. I’ve toured with him since then for a couple of years.

Pivoting to the album, Broken Land blends jazz with a celestial R&B sound. Talk to me about the process of creating music in that space.

I’d like to say it’s more alternative to me as opposed to jazz. The sound is hard to explain in terms of genre because I love so many different types of music and because I’m an instrumentalist. I just hear the instruments, I don’t hear genres. I wanted to bring in certain textures that I used anyway when I was in jazz school. All of these things became different colors in my mind. I wanted to paint the exact picture of what I’m feeling. I didn’t want to go the route of too much computer production. These instruments are living things.

Was there a singular moment that sparked this project?

My experiences in life were building up, and I realized that if I don’t find a way to tell this story, somebody won’t be helped and I won’t be helped. These lyrics come from real stories and experiences that I went through. This just came from my notepad and my notes on my phone.

You've described Broken Land as the product of taking the time to experience pain. How do you transform emotional pain into something constructive?

You get the beauty from ashes. Being able to withstand and experience any feeling is a beautiful thing. A friend of mine, Branford Marsalis, told me “you should feel bad when you fail.” I feel like you do yourself a disservice when you run from the feeling of failure. Just like when you’re happy and you let yourself experience that euphoria, it should be the same for failure. In human experience, you are designed to live through everything. When it storms, you have to dress for the occasion. The final product, once you get through it, is really the most beautiful part.

Which track on the album was the most difficult to approach and how did you overcome that?

“Empty,” because it speaks to the gray area in most relationships, where you feel the need to keep something to yourself. All the while, both people know that there is something there that is causing you pain. A lot of times you can see things in a person’s eyes, without hearing them out of their mouth. I wanted to put that into a song, and I wanted the visual to be that pain in someone’s eyes. I wanted you to be able to hear it.

Talk to me a little more about the process of writing “Motive.” The hook is a very interesting take on working through a relationship: “let’s just say we are the motive.”

I wrote that song with a friend of mine, Adam Agati, who plays the guitar across the whole album. That song is one of my favorites because it’s a joyride in the midst of addressing a serious situation. It’s almost as if we’re flying away from the situation, and contemplating it together. Since we’re away from everyone else’s perception or opinion, we’ll have a chance to decide if we’re the reason for what’s going on—or attribute that fall to something else.

Even though it’s more upbeat than other songs, I did want it to stay on-menu. I call the album a ‘short album,’ but it’s kind of like an audio movie.

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How did your talent for arranging music inform your structuring of this album?

I was very serious about the song order. Since I wrote everything, it came naturally. I played the songs, and thought ‘what feeling comes next?’ It wasn’t a very long process, but I really was serious about letting myself feel out what goes next.

Big K.R.I.T guests on this album, so how did you two connect?

We were on a flight together one time. I was already a fan of his, and we stayed in contact. I had done a few records for him, and we talk all the time. That particular song came from a conversation we had about police brutality. We both wanted to make a statement about it, and then the song came as a result.

“Ghost Town” is my favorite song on the album. Breakdown the making of that track.

The main thing I wanted to use in that song was space. In popular music, today, there’s not a lot of space to contemplate. I wanted to paint this picture for you, but I also wanted to give you space to think. I’m a big Radiohead fan, and they are one of those bands that use space very well. I wanted to use that, wanted to say something and then let a few bars go by and let you think about it. The song becomes more interactive that way. That’s one of the songs that made me know that I was okay telling my stories in this form.

You mention Radiohead, but are there any other musicians that influenced this album?

I love Frank Ocean, Radiohead, John Coltrane, D’Angelo. There’s so much. I love Frank Ocean’s approach and vulnerability, and the same for Thom Yorke. They really give up themselves to the listener.

How did you become comfortable giving so much of yourself on an album?

Comfortable is the only way. If I’m going to talk at all, I’m going to be honest. I was excited to be vulnerable.

The album ends with a strong sense of resolve and cautious optimism. How did you arrive at that moment of clarity on “Don’t Look Back”?

I have a desire to encourage myself, as well as other people. I think that sometimes staring at a situation for too long and over thinking leads to you standing there longer than you need to. So the song was a statement saying, ‘It’s okay that you went through that, just keep flying,’ because birds don’t look back. The song’s from the perspective of a bird.

Does that perspective inform how you work on music, not lamenting over a single song?

I spent a lot of time working on it, but lamenting? No. I pretty much have the statement together, and then I sing it the way that I mean. I don’t do things over and over again because then they start to feel too premeditated. I want to do it, mean it, and I don’t want to go back and make it pretty—too pretty.

What are you hoping listeners take away from this record, and yourself?

I hope that people find one thing, at least, that helps them. Everyone has their own battles, and everyone has things that they deal with on their own, and we all have to encourage each other. Hopefully, there’s something in this record that encourages you, and hopefully, there’s something here that gives you clarity or a new perspective. For myself: I’m just glad it’s out because I mean it. There’s nothing wrong with telling the truth.

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