In 1993, Brian Culbertson was a skinny, introverted but enormously talented college student putting the finishing touches on his debut recording Long Night Out between classes at DePaul University in Chicago. Working diligently among the small rack of machinery in a spare bedroom in his campus apartment, the 20 year old keyboardist had no clue that his ultra-catchy, easy grooving tunes would someday become all the rage in smooth jazz.
Anyone with a prescient ear might have predicted that his style would work well on radio, but 12 years and eight hit albums later, he’s also emerged as one of the genre’s most riveting live acts. When he’s not swaying sensuously around his keyboards, he’s grabbing the trombone (actually his first instrument), blowing heavy with his horn section - which now includes his father Jim, still the band director at Culbertson’s old high school in Decatur, Illinois - and prowling around the stage like a giddy madman, jamming with his band. On the ballads, his seductive moves perform double duty, seducing the women in the audience and the keys at the same time.
“When my first album came out and Mesa Records asked me to do some dates, I was really gun shy,” he remembers. “I spent my high school years working on music in the basement of my parent’s house, and the only live gigs I’d ever done were playing trombone in high school jazz bands and a few gigs in sections. Thankfully, Harry Hmura, my guitar player friend who played on my early recordings, knew the ropes and told me how to handle things on the road. The first gig was a disaster, though. It was bad weather in Cleveland and maybe six people showed up. So I pretended it was like batting practice. I started to get more comfortable and confident as more of my songs became radio hits and people started coming to the shows to hear me specifically. That’s when I started adding sexier moves onstage, too!”
With the release of It’s On Tonight, his debut for GRP Records which of all his albums most effectively transfers that soothing eroticism to disc, he’s officially become the Barry White of smooth jazz. He’s paler and slimmer than the late soul legend, but there’s no mistaking what this 12 song set - which features romantic vocal textures by Will Downing, Ledisi and Patti Austin, silky touches by genre pals Chris Botti, Kirk Whalum and Boney James, and even a violin harmony Culbertson’s multi-talented wife Michelle - is designed to do.
The concept for an all “bedroom eyes” disc - which he more formally describes as “grooves designed to accompany every stage of romance” - came to Culbertson after years of hearing fans tell him that they and their spouses or boy/girlfriends (fill in the blank) to his songs. “The idea is, it’s gonna be on tonight, it’s gonna happen, and the listener can decide what it is, but most of us can guess pretty easily,” the keyboardist laughs.
“I’ve always said that music is the soundtrack for people’s lives, and it’s great to be able to provide inspiration and something to set the mood,” he adds. “My last album, Come On Up, was such a party album that I had to hire a horn section to play a lot of the songs on the road. This time, I stripped down to a simpler story about creating an evening from start to finish. The first track, ‘Let’s Get Started,’ is the funkiest track, capturing the energy of anticipation. You’re getting ready for a night on the town. ‘Hookin’ Up’ is more playful, and by the time you hit the title track, you hear Will Downing’s invitation, ‘if you come home with me, baby, it’s on tonight.’” Later, there’s the danger of ‘Forbidden Love’ which prompts you to catch yourself and remember your true love on ‘Dreaming of You.’ The album ends with a soft new age/classical piano solo which could be a chillout song or a lullaby.”
With his last album, Culbertson capitalized on radio’s love for instantly recognizable instrumental cover tunes with the airplay hit Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire.” But he felt that throwing in a familiar classic this time would break the heartfelt effect he was aiming for. “I knew that a remake would evoke memories of earlier relationships,” he says, “and I wanted this project to be all about creating new memories, living and loving in the moment. So someday when people hear these songs, they can remember when they ‘filled in the blank’ listening.”
Likewise, he instinctively knew when one of his original songs was worthy of becoming a chapter in his lighthearted tale of love, unlimited. “It was fun making a concept record because I wasn’t just focused on gathering a bunch of cool tracks,” he says. “When I was working on a song, I instantly knew whether it would fit. There were no ‘maybes’ or ‘I’ll get back to this,’ it was just obvious. All that aside, though, it’s just an enjoyable disc to listen to, and a fun journey no matter what you use it for. You don’t have to be having sex to enjoy it, but it’s there if you need it.”
Another groove-intensive genre keyboard great taking the conceptual approach these days is Joe McBride, who wants us to get jazzed up for a night of hardcore poker playing - capitalizing on the current national craze - on Texas Hold ‘Em, his first release for Heads Up since 2002’s Keepin’ It Real. The front cover photo shows him all smiles, holding a jack and king of hearts, surrounded by hotties in cowboy hats; the back, two aces and assorted chips. Musically, the generally happy and optimistic, uptempo funk vibe (read: he and his band, The Texas Rhythm Club, have got a winning hand) comes across with the help of casino friendly titles like “Big Slick,” “Double Down” and “No Limit.” The closing tune “One Eyed Jack,” has more of a sinister dark vibe, modal in the Miles-Coltrane sense, invoking the atmosphere of a tense, smoke filled room. Slightly off the topic but no less engaging are the moody, wistful “The River” and the most unexpected treat, a bluesy, darkly chorded, heavy bottom jam of the Iron Butterfly classic “”In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” McBride’s spirited piano improvisations make this version - which clocks in some 13 minutes shorter than the original - far less doom laden than the original.
Blind since his teen years, McBride reveals just why he’s so happy that he can turn darkness to light so effortlessly: “I have a someone custom making me a deck of Braille cards to play with, and I vow I’m going to master this game. Funny thing, though. If I want, I’ll be able to feel what the card is when everyone else has theirs face down and out of sight. But that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?”
Expanding towards metaphor, McBride muses, “Poker and jazz are a lot alike in their unpredictability and their exploration of the unknown. As a musician, the things I’ve been through and the people I’ve played with to this point have provided me with a certain hand, and it’s up to me to make that experience work to my advantage. I like to think that with each new album and development in my life, I am enjoying a unique evolutionary process. I love music, it’s a part of my soul and I enjoy the constant challenge of creating new ways to express it. For me, the greatest thing is taking certain risks yet not knowing where they’re all going to take me... yes, very much like playing poker.”
1) Jamie Oldaker, Mad Dogs and Okies (Concord) – The all-star brainchild of popular sideman rock drummer Jamie Oldaker, this gritty, roots rocking collection celebrates a wealth of Oklahoma based songwriting and performing with Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson Peter Frampton, Taj Mahal, J.J. Cale and a host of other heartland blues/rockers.
2) Seal, Live in Paris (Warner Bros.)
3) Coldplay, X&Y (Capitol)
4) Jim Chappell, Coming Through (Unspeakable Freedom Music)
5) John Stevens, Red (Maverick)
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY
1) Paul Brown, The City (GRP
2) Bona Fide, Soul Lounge (Heads Up)
3) Euge Groove, Just Feels Right (Narada Jazz)
4) Various Artists, Def Jazz (GRP)
5) Earl Klugh, Naked Guitar (Koch Records)