From Afro-Cuban percussion to Brazilian bossa nova rhythms, jazz listeners are unusually open to international sounds. That is even truer of jazz musicians. Anyone who plays jazz is going to encounter some opposition in their careers, so they can easily identify with other musicians facing their own struggles. Multi-reed performer Kirk Whalum uses his Civil Rights-era Memphis childhood as a jumping off point to understand the hardships and triumphs experienced by several global musicians with whom he records new music for the project documented in Jim Hanon’s Humanité, the Beloved Community, which is now available on DVD for your last-minute holiday shopping needs.
Whalum is pigeon-holed as a “smooth jazz” artist, but his great mentor was the fiery Texas Tenor, Arnett Cobb. Yet, Whalum explains his greatest influence was and continues to be the empowering voices of the gospel singers he grew up listening to as the son of a minister. Regardless, he has chops, as well as the flexibility to play with a variety of artists from around the world.
Frankly, some of the best sequences in the film involve Whalum’s memories of 1960’s Memphis, particularly his time spent at the Lorraine Motel, which was a center of the local African American community before it became known as the site of the Martin Luther King assassination. Subsequently, Hanon follows Whalum and English trumpeter (and associate music producer) James McMillan as they collaborate with musicians in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK, Indonesia, and Japan. By far, their best-known musical comrade is Keiko Matsui, who also gets tagged with the “smooth” label, but that does a grave disservice to her wonderful touch and elegant melodies.
Indeed, many of the musicians profiled in Humanité have faced serious trials, including depression, poverty, and in the case of McMillan, caring for a physically challenged son. They all make music together that sounds quite distinctive and life-affirming, even if your tastes range more towards the acoustical bop-based spectrum of jazz. Unfortunately, Hanon has a weird habit of imposing the recording of their Humanité tunes over montages of performance footage that clearly and distractingly do not psych-up. (Several times we see but do not hear Whalum playing flute or soprano saxophone, which is a bit of a Chekhov’s gun problem).
Clocking in just under 70 minutes, Humanité is relatively brief, but it nicely illustrates how music can be a healing force, for the individual and society. It should also lead to a wider appreciation of Whalum’s music and that of his colleagues (especially Matsui), even though Hanon’s questionable approach often leads to viewer disconnect. Still, the music and the message have merit. Recommended despite misgivings over its presentation style, Humanité, the Beloved Community is now available on DVD.