The Railhead located inside the Boulder Station Casino was the scene of a sold-out soul drenched spectacle when the Sax for Stax tour paid a visit to Las Vegas. The magnificent show featured the pairing of two of contemporary jazz’s elite saxophone players, Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum. These two titans, who have always endeavored to play with abundant heartfelt soul while making solid connections with people’s hearts, provided the ideal tribute for Stax Records, the label which defined Memphis soul. This blending of jazz with R&B is nothing new, with a sub-genre known as Urban Jazz having grown from the efforts of skilled musicians such as these two sax masters. The show also became a tribute to the universally loved bass player Wayman Tisdale. Tisdale, the big man with the infectious smile, had visited this same intimate venue many times before his recent untimely passing.
Kirk Whalum hails from Memphis, Tennessee, and has shared the stage with some of Rhythm and Blues biggest names, such as the amazing and enduring Al Green, Luther Vandross, and Whitney Houston. He’s also shared the spotlight with countless jazz giants in his illustrious career. Whalum also contributed his soulful tenor sax on a guest appearance on Albright’s 2008 critically and commercially successful Sax For Stax release. Gerald Albright’s pedigree is equally impressive, and he has long been one of the country’s top showstoppers and hit-makers. In addition to his work with The Jeff Lorber Fusion and Patrice Rushen, he has accompanied legends such as The Temptations, Barry White, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Quincy Jones, Anita Baker and Stanley Clarke, along with many more. Gerald and Kirk co-headlined one of the Guitars and Saxes tours which annually produce some of the finest concerts in the land. Their shared history, in addition to their deep respect to the traditions of past legendary performers, makes viewing them together a monumental experience.
As Gerald himself remarked, on this evening they brought along an "A Team" of sidemen to aid them in thrilling the audience. Bassist Melvin Davis, keyboardist Tracy Carter, and drummer J.J. Williams, veterans from Gerald’s exceptional touring band, were joined by guitarist Gary Goin (himself a Memphis native) to provide a tight and funky groove-filled sound all evening. For the majority of the night, Albright skillfully played alto saxophone and Whalum concentrated on tenor saxophone, validating their lofty well-earned reputations. Both took brief breaks during the show, but the greater part of the night found them generating dazzling duets to the delight of the crowd.
Gerald held the audience in the palm of his hand the entire show, as evidenced by his ability to get everyone to snap their fingers along in time to the beat of the title track of his 1989 release "Bermuda Nights." Gerald’s incomparable alto sax created a quiet storm that filled the room with note after lucid note of sublime enchantment. His brilliant musical display caused Whalum to remark "I should be paying to see this!"
Whalum proceeded to provide one of the night’s most stirringly memorable songs with his dedication and renaming of the song "Waltz For Evan" to "Waltz For Wayman" in honor of the late Tisdale. He unsuccessfully fought to hold back tears as he tenderly weaved a beautiful and utterly moving duet with gifted guitarist Goin on this lovely ballad.
That very touching moment was hard to follow. But, Gerald had the answer with his rendition of "My, My, My," the Johnny Gill signature song from his Dream Come True recording of 1990. Albright hit and held onto ear piercing soaring notes on alto sax that had to be heard to be believed. His dynamic exhibition of power combined with artistic nuance was simply awe-inspiring. It was the first instance of audience participation in a sing-along, but it wouldn’t be the last. He then declared that it was time for some blues, setting the stage for an impassioned simmering rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s classic tune "Georgia On My Mind." The song has been an ever-popular staple of Albright’s live performances for nearly twenty years and still remains fresh and bright.
A saxophone duel between Whalum and Albright was the centerpiece of "Walking Down Beale Street," another wonderful song contained on Gerald’s Sax For Stax. This tune, which Kirk graced with his presence on the CD, perfectly captures the essence of the Memphis soul/blues tradition. It was one of three original songs that Gerald wrote on the Grammy nominated tribute CD.
An extended medley with snippets from some of the pair’s favorite instrumentalists supplied another major high point. The band paid tribute to their musical roots performing portions of "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" from Cannonball Adderly and "Mister Magic" from Grover Washington Jr. John Coltrane, Ronnie Laws, and David Sanborn were shown similar high esteem, and provided opportunities for both sax men to stretch their boundaries and blow their horns like possessed madmen. Kirk provided a brief moment of levity when he produced a soprano saxophone from backstage and began playing a fleeting fragment of Kenny G’s "Songbird" before Gerald stopped him and suggested they instead pay homage to James Brown’s famous soulful sax player, Maceo Parker. The crowd was once again drawn to their feet as Tracy Carter on keys delivered a funky groove. Gary Goin and Melvin Davis paraded to the front of the stage to join Albright and Whalum in a line, with all of them imploring the audience to "Get On Up" as they spun, twirled and bowed in the synchronized choreography favored by "old school" acts.
The encore turned into yet another audience sing-along, as the band performed a gritty and gratifying "Who’s Making Love," another Stax chestnut, this one from Johnny Taylor. A rousing performance with both Albright and Whalum playing tenor sax, it kept the crowd on its feet. The cheers were deafening as Albright and Whalum left the stage, shaking hands along the way, while the remainder of the band kept the groove for another superb few minutes.
Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum are two tremendous powerhouse showmen, who pour out their heart and soul into every savory performance. If you should get the chance to catch this stimulating show in your town, you better jump at the prospect. Energized shows like this one are the stuff that dreams are made of.