No doubt the title of Unconditional applies to the love of God that pervades his music and life, but like most of Whalum's efforts, this collection can be enjoyed by a wide audience. The centerpiece title song isn't blatantly gospel, but Whalum's textured multiple tenor lines rise powerfully towards the heavens like a soaring choir after making their main melodic hook statements. At one point, Whalum improvises crisply over Greg Phillinganes' simmering Rhodes as Luis Conte's percussion dances around him. "Now Till Forever" begins with a more meditative, smoky approach before Whalum, backed by John Stoddart's soulful wordless vocals, puts a little more oomph in the chorus. On "Playing With Fire," Whalum's soaring lines are answered and expounded upon by the balmy acoustic guitar breezes of Peter White; late in the tune, Whalum textures his sax to sound like a horn section, weaving that around White's sly lines. Gregg Karukas' moody keyboards and some colorful handclap effects help Whalum find some church in 'N Sync's "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You"; Tim Heintz's shimmering organ harmonies have the same gospel effect on a percussive cover of Macy Gray's "I Try," whose hook is also played as a one-man horn section. Whalum stretches out the slammin' funk and heartfelt meditations to over seven minutes on the cleverly titled "Groverworked and Underpaid," bouncing gleefully over Phillinganes' throbbing Rhodes and Paul Jackson Jr.'s plucky electric guitar, before improvising liberally. This kind of track represents a true risk for a smooth jazz album, but it seems Whalum was more concerned with portraying his feelings about the recently departed Grover Washington, Jr. and his inspiration honestly.
by Jonathan Widran
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