Kirk Whalum fans will find much to love about Romance Language as Kirk is in his usual smooth, soulful and elegant groove. He wisely sticks to his own sound and sensibilities instead of trying to channel Coltrane. In fact were it possible we might think instead that Coltrane went "back to the future" to capture some of Whalum's sound for the original on which Coltrane plays with a breathy spareness, long before the saxophone and smooth jazz became so friendly with each other. Both are similarly reserved when underscoring the vocals and relaxed when blowing their own solo choruses, knowing that on these romantic tunes, less is very much more.
A big difference between the Coltrane/Hartman effort and the Whalum's is the orchestrations (and, of course, modern recording and mixing technology). The Whalums use new rhythmic treatments (e.g. Latin); use the rounder, bubblier sound of the Fender Rhodes in lieu of Tyner's piano on several tunes; and add some other instrumentation such as strings, guitar, percussion, winds and brass. These updates add both sparkle and richness.
Another big difference is vocally: Kevin Whalum is a tenor with a little airiness and texture in his tone whereas Hartman was a buttery smooth baritone. When Coltrane and Hartman recorded, Coltrane was the better known of the pair; and so too today Kirk Whalum is much better known than his singing brother Kevin. Yet Kevin, like Johnny Hartman before him, shows that notoriety is an insufficient gage of talent; both sing beautifully well and often make you think their records are vocal features that also happen to have a famous saxophone player in the band.
Romance Language also features four additional songs that extend the love. A highlight among these is "Almost Doesn't Count," a lost-love blues by Guy Roche and Shelley Peiken first recorded by R&B star Brandy on her 1998 release, Never Say Never. Here we are treated to vocals by Kirk's 83-year-old uncle, Hugh "Peanuts" Whalum, singing with an I've-been-there honesty that makes the tune even more poignant. "I Wish I Wasn't" is classic Whalum instrumental sax while "I Wanna Know" quotes cleverly from the old Minnie Riperton pop hit, "Lovin' You." The closer is "Spend My Life With You," a bluesy slow-dance anthem that deftly mixes both the Fender Rhodes and a Hammond B3 organ under Whalum's pining tenor sax.
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman would no doubt approve of this modern take on their original collaboration. Romance Language is excellent, lights-down-low smooth jazz, full of class and heart.