For imminent bassist, Distinguished Professor of Jazz Bass and Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan State Rodney Whitaker, the release of his latest record All Too Soon is both an essential artistic undertaking and a lavish fiftieth birthday gift to himself. The record is the second installment of an extensive five-CD homage to Duke Ellington that takes its title from the maestro’s romantic blue ballad from 1940 on which the iconic tenor saxophonist Ben Webster uncorked a solo that still stands as a masterpiece of boudoir tenor saxophone.
“To some people, 50 is not old,” says the Detroit native, who performs on some 200 recordings. He’s led nine of them, most recently When We Find Ourselves Alone (Mack Avenue), from 2014. “But I grew up in a community where a lot of people died very young, from diabetes, cancer, violence — and I started thinking more and more about my time on the planet. It was therapeutic for me to think about all the things I’ve done up to this point, and having surpassed a lot of the dreams I had as a young musician.”
Whitaker continues: “I think about recordings as a diary, and I wanted to document what I’ve been thinking about since I made my last recording five years ago. In jazz, you’re often asked questions about innovation, about things that are new. But to me, the music is just honest, and in order for me to go on, I needed to get all this out of my system.”
The first installment, released in June, is a Whitaker collaboration with composer Gregg Hill titled Common Ground (Origin Records). Scheduled for subsequent release are a solo bass recital titled Me, Myself and I that includes tributes to such early heroes as Paul Chambers, Milt Hinton, and Ron Carter, and a trio encounter with trumpeter Etienne Charles and guitarist Mark Whitfield comprising original compositions dedicated to his wife and seven children, titled Love Letter. Whitaker will soon assemble an ensemble to record two suites titled When Love Beckons and Light and Shadows.
As for All Too Soon, Whitaker convened an exceptional instrumental sextet and vocalist Rockelle Fortin to animate the iconic Ellington repertoire contained herein.
Trumpet maestro Brian Lynch functioned as a co-equal sideman with Phil Woods and Eddie Palmieri after serving consequential 1980s apprenticeships with Horace Silver and Art Blakey. Among his 20+ albums as a leader are the 2006 Grammy-winning Simpatico, and, more recently, the 2017 Grammy-nominated Madera Latino: A Latin Jazz Interpretation on the Music of Woody Shaw.
Two of Whitaker’s colleagues from Michigan State University fill out the front line. Tenor and soprano saxophonist Diego Rivera, a Johnny Griffin devotee who Whitaker describes as “my first call saxophonist,” is the Associate Director of MSU’s world class jazz studies program. Trombonist Michael Dease, a one-time student of Whitaker’s LCJO colleague Wycliffe Gordon, has established an international reputation by dint of ten leader recordings that showcase his efflorescent instrumental and compositional skills and endless will to swing.
Ann Arbor-based pianist Rick Roe is a long-standing colleague who made the 1994 “cult classic,” Monk’s Modern Music, in trio with Whitaker and drummer Greg Hutchinson (partners in Roy Hargrove’s quintet from 1991 to 1994), and, in 1996, recorded Changeover in trio with Whitaker and Detroiter Karriem Riggins on drums
Now 43, Riggins — best known for his bona fides as a hip-hop producer and beatmaker — played on Whitaker’s first two albums, Hidden Kingdom and Children of the Light, from 1994 and 1996, respectively. At that time, Riggins was lighting fires with Hargrove in preparation for consequential tenures with Ray Brown and Mulgrew Miller, while Whitaker had recently joined the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, where he began the process of expanding his scope from bebop, hardbop and free jazz to an embrace of what used to be called “mainstream swing”.
“When I was younger, I didn’t like Ray Brown or Oscar Peterson or any of what I called ‘happy jazz,’” Whitaker recalls. “I thought it was corny. But when I was 16, I got an album called Soulmates by Joe Zawinul and Ben Webster. I bought it because I was listening to Weather Report a lot; I wasn’t even hip to what Joe had done with Cannonball Adderley’s sextet until I was 18. Anyway, I fell in love with Ben Webster’s sound, and checking him out sent me to Ellington and all the others.”
Initially a dedicated violinist, Whitaker switched to bass in junior high school. His band director Ed Quick and artist in residence Herbie Williams taught him harmony, and he evolved conceptually in a teenage group called Bird/Trane/Sco/Now!, led by Donald Washington, Whitaker’s string instructor in sixth and seventh grade and Hosea Taylor had him switch to the bass violin in eighth grade. Following Charles Mingus’ philosophy that jazz is the art of the moment, the ensemble spanned bebop to free jazz. During these years, Whitaker also participated in trumpeter Marcus Belgrave’s jazz group, performed European classical music with the Detroit Civic Orchestra, studied privately with members of the Detroit Symphony, and worked with such Motor City luminaries as pianist Kenn Cox and drummers Leonard King and Francesco Mora Catlett. A devotee of Paul Chambers and Ron Carter from the jump, Whitaker also credits Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, James Jamerson, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden and Dave Holland as crucial influences on his style.
After leaving Detroit in 1988 with the Donald Harrison-Terence Blanchard Quintet, Whitaker joined Hargrove in 1991 for a four-year run. “That’s the gig where I really got myself together,” he recalls. “We toured eight months a year, and we got to play and interface with everybody, and with all the press we had as the new young guys on the scene, we had to step up our game and deliver. It was more than you could ever get in a school”
During 1995 and 1996, when he freelanced with Bob James, Kenny Garrett and Diana Krall, Whitaker recorded his first two CDs, Children of the Light and Hidden Kingdom, both comprised primarily of original music. In 1996, Wynton Marsalis brought him into the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
“During my eight years with LCJO, I played every major work by Ellington, studied all the scores, and read every book about him that I could find,” Whitaker says. “I had my mind blown by Duke’s and Strayhorn’s brilliance by playing works like ‘The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse’ or ‘Such Sweet Thunder’ or ‘The Far East Suite.’ I looked at it as graduate school, getting my Ph.D in performance. I picked Wynton’s brain, and we had conversations where sometimes my opinions were polar opposite to his on, let’s say, whether Ellington or Strayhorn had written parts of a particular tune. To be able to debate him, I had to learn more about music.
“The sound of their chord voicings, the style of the song forces you to play in the style of a particular person, almost like an actor going into character, to bring out the life from that music. But you have to force yourself not to do that. Duke wouldn’t want you to play in the style of him — his ‘A Train’ sounds totally different in 1948 than in 1960. Once we played a “Blanton-Webster Years” concert with John Lewis, who told us: ‘Quote the solo, but then do your own thing.’ If you don’t do that, you’re not playing jazz. Any music has to be allowed to live.”
Whitaker wanted this date to be “like a cutting session where a lot of the music is not arranged,” a dictum that he and his partners uphold throughout the proceedings. Fortin finds fresh ways to articulate the lyrics of “All Too Soon,” “Take The A Train,” “Mood Indigo,” “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” “Azure,” and “Come Sunday.” Each soloist tells stories with the tropes of blues expression, melodic change playing, and the will to swing. Whitaker displays his gifts as a nonpareil melodic soloist (“A Train,” “Just Squeeze Me,” and “Perdido”) and locks in for the duration with Riggins, whose kinetic swing feel, unfailing taste, and ability to sustain timbral interest is downright preternatural.
There’s a lot of music, but it leaves the listener wanting more. ““I could release another volume,” Whitaker says. “There are 12 tunes — including some more obscure ones — that we didn’t use.”