By Val Vaccaro [Artist photos by Barry Chapman - BazPix Photography]
On Wednesday, July 26th, the 2017 Smooth Jazz New York Cruise series featured BWB -
the jazz supergroup composed of three amazing, popular musicians - trumpeter Rick Braun, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and guitarist Norman Brown. BWB brought their own special brand of joyful smooth jazz instrumental music, vocals, dance moves, and witty humor to create an exciting, fun, party-like atmosphere, and celebration of music and friendship to an appreciative smooth jazz audience. The talented, tight, and bright sounding BWB supporting band members included John Stoddart on keyboards, Braylon Lacy on bass, and Jay Williams on drums.
This BWB show was part of the 20th anniversary season of the great annual summer Smooth Jazz New York cruise concert series presented by Bill Zafiros of Marquee Concerts (which produced the CD 101.9 Smooth Cruises for 12 years before the missed station went off the air in 2008 after twenty years) along with Rich Engel's Live at Nite music company.
The 2017 Smooth Jazz New York cruise summer concerts also included Jonathan Butler & Gerald Albright, Peter White & Vincent Ingala, Rachelle Ferrell & Rahsaan Patterson, Najee & Alex Bugnon, and The Stylistics. The NYC summer concert cruise series was held on the Hornblower Infinity yacht which departed from Pier 40 Hudson River Park (Houston Street and West Side Highway). The shows were at 6:30pm and 9:30pm for a two hour cruise each around lower Manhattan past iconic locations such as the Freedom Tower (One World Observatory), the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The Hornblower Infinity (a fitting name since many smooth jazz horn players perform shows there) is an air-conditioned, modern, multi-deck yacht with comfortable seating, a tasty food buffet, and a smooth ride along lower Manhattan on the Hudson River and East River.
On July 26th, for the 6:30pm cruise, old friends and BWB band mates Rick Braun and Kirk Whalum did a fantastic show (I have had the good fortune to see them perform together since 1996). Braun and Whalum held down the fort since Norman Brown was unfortunately unable to be there for the first show due to extenuating circumstances. Bill Zafiros, co-founder of Marquee Concerts, offered to refund tickets to Norman Brown fans waiting on the line for the 6:30pm show and also gave ticket holders the chance to stay for the 9:30pm concert at no additional cost.
After Brown arrived in time for the 9:30pm BWB show, Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, and Norman Brown converged onstage to play, sing, dance, joke, and triumph with wonderful performances of music from their group and individual recordings. At the top of their game, they performed songs from all three BWB CDs: Groovin' (2002), Human Nature (2013) (Michael Jackson covers), and the recent self-titled CD BWB (2016) produced by Braun in his home studio of all original jazz, funk, R&B, and soul music influenced by Braun's Philly ties, Whalum's Memphis origins, and Brown's Kansas City roots.
Seeing the great but rare combination of BWB was a special treat for the lucky audience - the last time they played the Smooth Jazz New York cruise was in 2013. Also, the July 26, 2017 concert was only one of a handful of other BWB shows this summer. Braun and Brown have been touring together with Richard Elliot as the West Coast Jam around the U.S. and doing shows as individual artists. Whalum is on a tour throughout the U.S., Europe, Africa, and other parts of the world playing his own shows, and as a special guest with the Fourplay Jazz group (with his early mentor pianist Bob James).
The July 26th BWB show kicked off in high gear with an introduction from Miles Davis' "Milestones" and then segued into an upbeat cover of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" from BWB's Human Nature CD. They also played "Ruby Baby" the mid-tempo, soulful, sparked-with-some-spunk song from BWB's Groovin' CD composed by Whalum and named for his wife of 37 years. The group also played the title track of their recent self-titled BWB CD (2016).
Grammy Award winning guitarist Norman Brown brought his energetic, feel-good, upbeat strumming and scatting when he played some of the greatest hits from his popular After the Storm CD (1994) including "After the Storm," "That's the Way Love Goes" (with Braun and Whalum on their horns, dancing in-sync, and background vocals on the chorus), and the Isley Brothers classic tune "For the Love of You" with the audience singing the chorus on that one. Brown also released a new CD in 2017 called Let it Go.
The July 26th BWB concert also included "Do You Feel Me" from Kirk Whalum's Into My Soul CD (2003) introduced by him as a real down South Memphis 'BBQ'-influenced song featuring Whalum's signature silky smooth, soulful saxophone and vocals - which had the audience singing along. Whalum also played "Big Ol' Shoes" from his Round Trip CD (2007).
Saxophonist Kirk Whalum is a recipient of many honors including a Grammy award, twelve Grammy nominations, two Stellar Awards (for Gospel music), three Dove Award nominations, and a NAACP Image Award nomination. In 2017, Whalum recently released a new CD called #LoveCovers which features jazz, R&B, and gospel-influenced music with spiritual themes which debuted at the top of the Billboard Jazz and Gospel charts. Whalum's website features some new, creatively designed #LoveCovers tee shirts.
The #LoveCovers CD includes a funky, uplifting version of Stevie Wonder's "Have A Talk with God," a swinging, R&B smooth jazz hybrid interpretation of Beyoncé's "Love On Top," a sultry smooth jazz version of Bill Wither's "Use Me" and an ethereal, beautiful spiritual version of "God is Love" (which was the "B" side of Marvin Gaye's 1971 single "What's Going On" and was on Gaye's momentous album of the same name about social and political turmoil). "God is Love" features Kirk Whalum's peaceful, soothing, melodious saxophone and graceful, expansive, moving vocals by brother Kevin Whalum evocatively reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's tone.
Notably, the #LoveCovers CD also includes Kirk Whalum's first studio recording of "I Will Always Love You" a song which Whalum played on tour with Whitney Houston in the 1990s, and later on as an instrumental song in his own jazz shows. Houston's sentimental, dramatic version of the hit pop ballad "I Will Always Love you" from the movie The Bodyguard (composed by Dolly Parton in the 1970s) topped the Billboard charts in 1992 for 14 weeks at number one and won a Grammy for Record of the Year. Whalum had played the original saxophone solo on Whitney Houston's album, which garnered millions of fans.
This July, during the BWB show on the Smooth Jazz New York cruise, Kirk Whalum took the opportunity to play his beautiful, heartfelt, emotionally stirring instrumental version of "I Will Always Love You." As a prelude, Kirk Whalum - being an ordained minister and the son of a preacher - shared the poignant story that when he was at Whitney Houston's funeral in 2012, he had an epiphany about the song's meaning on many levels... not just about love between two people, but also about the sacred higher power love of Jesus.
Changing gears, another highlight of the show was when BWB played and sang the upbeat feel-good, catchy, dance party-jam, 1960s groove, jazz influenced "Everything is Alright" from Rick Braun's current CD Around The Horn (2017) written by Braun for his wife of 20 years. Braun sardonically joked about the CD's album cover with him kicking a splash in the ocean with his trumpet in hand as being a 'regular' everyday thing.
In addition, BWB did great performances of two classic Rick Braun songs. The band played a wonderful arrangement of "Notorious" with its dramatic melodies and rhythms from Braun's Body and Soul CD (1997).
BWB also performed "Cadillac Slim" the crowd-pleasing favorite that Braun played while walking in the aisles close to the audience members - from his seminal Beat Street CD (1995). The song briefly made a fun but unexpected detour segue into Duke Ellington's "Caravan".
Rick Braun also invited the audience to visit all three BWB artists' websites (Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown). In addition, Braun invited the audience to check out his 2017 New Year's Eve Getaway celebration in Tucson, Arizona and his 2019 European River Cruise from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Basel, Switzerland (his 2018 River cruise sold out in three weeks). Also, in September 2018, Kirk Whalum is co-hosting a special Footsteps of Paul Cruise in Italy, Greece and Turkey.
The BWB show finale at the July 26, 2017 Smooth Jazz New York cruise included the frenetically-fun jazz/rock/dance/Latin-tinged arrangement of Michael Jackson's "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)" from BWB's Human Nature CD.Overall, BWB performed another fantastic show bringing their high energy, superb musicianship, and playful nature to their concert. It was a winning combination as part of the 2017 Smooth Jazz New York summer cruise season with great music, a highly entertaining show, and flavorful dining, on a comfortable NYC cruise sightseeing yacht. Stay tuned for the 2018 Smooth Jazz New York concert schedule for next summer.