Mosaic's Contemporary series does it right with this 12-cut retrospective of tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum. Ultimate contains cuts covering nearly 20 years in the enigmatic Whalum's recording (from his 1985 debut Floppy Disc on Columbia through his beautiful 2002 album, Hymns in the Garden for Warner Brothers). The hallmark of Whalum's sound is his unmistakable voice as a soloist. Matt Pierson, who wrote the liner notes, rightly asserts that along with the late Grover Washington, Jr. and David Sanborn, Whalum's sound on the horn is utterly individual in contemporary jazz. But it's more than tone and phrasing (which owe as much to Arnett Cobb, Booker Ervin, and Illinois Jacquet than his forebears in the genre), it's the inherent ability to convey emotion, imagination and technique no matter what he plays. In fact, if anyone could make a case against the snobs for contemporary jazz it is Whalum. Admittedly, some of the technological sounds of the records he has made have dated, such as the drum machines and computer programming, but the notion of the songs themselves is timeless. Take a listen to "All I Need," from 1987's Colors album. While Philippe Saisse's programming textures are a bit redundant, the gospel choral and the Hammond B-3 are as timeless as Whalum's honking, crooning, and shouting on the horn. The classical overtones in "Desperately" give way to a Brazilian samba feel as Bob James' keyboards offer a delicate backdrop to Whalum's horn and Steve Khan's guitar playing. Leonard "Doc" Gibbs' organic percussion displaces the technology as the groove is lithe, elegant and effortless. The slippery light funk on "Ascension," provided by Alex Al's bass, and Paulinho da Costa give Whalum room to literally soar from David Woods drum loops, and Ricky Peterson's Rhodes complements his solo beautifully. "Now 'Til Forever" from 2000s Unconditional uses Lenny Castro's percussion and Roberto Vally's and Tim Heintz's keyboard work as a spring board, and Whalum's fat, warm, edgy tone literally sings its tenderness through to the listener. The nocturnal funk of "Playing with Fire" is a worthy successor to Washington's "Mister Magic" on any DJ mix -- 'nuff said. The organic approach toward Into My Soul's title cut has such a sweet happy groove, with drums and basslines hypnotically popping as Whalum double tracks his own playing like a chorale. It's romantic, happy, and full of soul. The solo intro he plays on the Babyface classic "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" -- yeah, he played on the Whitney Houston version -- offers an entirely new reading of the tune. One would have thought that Houston's voice could never be replaced, but as an instrumental, urban contemporary soul-jazz tune it works like a charm (the track also features the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell on guitar). The disc ends with the age-old church nugget "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." Given that Memphis soul and gospel are at the heart of everything Whalum does, this version, played on the soprano with John Stoddart's upright piano accompaniment is a wonderfully astute reading, bringing Jelly Roll Morton's percussive chord voicings into the mix as a base for Whalum's twisting and turning of the melody, making this a wondrous little Saturday night transition into Sunday morning. This is a solid volume. Hardcore fans will have problems perhaps with some of the choices, but not with the music itself. As a representation of a career now in its third phase, this is deep look at the past as it points toward the future, and proves to be a very solid introduction to the work of a modern master.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek