Whitaker sets ambitious goal – and reaches it
Jazz leader uses milestone birthday as motivation, pushing himself and inspiring students.
Like many people, Rodney Whitaker blinked and found himself 50 years old.
“When I wasn’t 50, I thought 50 was old,” said the bassist and director of Jazz Studies at Michigan State University. “But now that I am, I see it’s a good place to be in life, and a time where I can contribute more to society and humanity.”
Shortly after turning 50 in 2018, Whitaker set a personal goal to record five CDs in the span of one to two years. Each release would signify one of the five decades of his life. He released one in April 2019 and a second in October 2019. Two more are slated for fall 2020. He recently began the fifth release, tossing around concepts as he considers the direction he wants to take.
“When I began the project, I sort-of knew what it was going to be,” said Whitaker. “But my ideas are changing.”
The first of the five releases, “Common Ground,” is a homage to friendship and consists of selections penned by East Lansing composer and arts supporter Gregg Hill. Whitaker guides the interpretation of what he describes as “modern bebop and 21st century soul jazz,” leading an all-star ensemble of trumpeter Terell Stafford, saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist Bruce Barth, and drummer Dana Hall. Four pieces feature Whitaker’s daughter and vocalist Rockelle Fortin, who partnered with Hill to write lyrics.
“This release was born out of respect for Gregg’s music and his character as a human being,” said Whitaker. “It’s important for his music to get out there and gain wider recognition.”
The second release in Whitaker’s five CD project reflect his admiration for the people, musicians and composers who influenced his life. “All Too Soon—The Music of Duke Ellington” celebrates the music of the jazz giant who Whitaker studied through his eight-year tenure with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Similar to “Common Ground,” Whitaker recruited a masterful lineup, including trumpeter Brian Lynch, drummer Karriem Riggins, pianist Richard Roe and his MSU jazz colleagues Michael Dease on trombone and Diego Rivera on saxophone. Vocalist Rockelle Fortin also appears, as she does on all five recordings.
“Love Letters”—Whitaker’s third release come spring—is a natural.
“Over the years, I’ve written songs for my wife and about my kids, but I’ve never had a chance to put them on one CD,” he said. “I want to show how much I love them and how much I appreciate their support and sacrifices.”
While “Love Letters” features the aesthetics of trumpeter and MSU colleague Etienne Charles, guitarist and MSU colleague Randy Napoleon, guitarist Mark Whitfield, and vocalist Fortin, Whitaker goes it alone on his fourth release. “Me, Myself and I” will feature original compositions as well as jazz standards.
“Going solo is a way to stretch myself,” he said. “When you do a solo recording, you’re doing everything. You give yourself challenges and push yourself. It’s a way to grow.”
Looking ahead to the fifth and final CD, Whitaker said his birthday project is more than music—it’s his pledge to keep growing as a musician, producer and human being.
All five CDs are or will be released through the independent label Origin—which means he’s involved in most every aspect of production—from coordinating musicians and studio times, recording, mixing and mastering, arranging CD design and liner notes, and distribution.
“This has been a very personal project and it’s made me stretch since I’ve had to live the regular part of my life as well,” he said. “But I wanted to be pushed. You can’t shy away from challenges. It’s the only way to remain relevant.”
Whitaker admits committing to five CDs in a one- to two-year schedule is a bit ambitious. But he’s on track to finish and is pleased with the results as well as the journey itself.
“My hope, too, is that my students see it’s important to create initiatives for yourself as an artist,” he said. “You can’t wait. The only way you can be relevant and grow is if you accept challenges.”