The Seductive Moves and Irresistible Grooves of Brian Culbertson
By Jonathan Widran
Just two mornings after tearing it up onstage with his on-fire band under the sizzling Saturday afternoon sun at the Old Pasadena JazzFest, Brian Culbertson is in chill mode as he kicks back in his 1,000 square-foot home studio in Woodland Hills, California. Working up a sweat wearing a black T-shirt under a red button-down, the keyboard whiz seemed to be playing “Catch Me If You Can” throughout the show. He was all over the stage, moving ever so seductively behind his instrument during his lush ballads–– including the title track from his brand new GRP debut It's On Tonight –– before going manically mobile, blasting his trombone on his crowd-pleasing, horn-drenched hits.
But even at home in the familiar confines of his creative space, it's rare to find him relaxing amidst the rows of keyboards and monitors. After all, this is where the keyboardist has written and produced some of smooth jazz's most popular recordings over the past decade, including Nice & Slow (which spent six weeks at #1 on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart in 2001) and 2003's Come On Up. And in recent months, when he wasn't putting the finishing touches on his own album, he was helping his wife, classical/opera singer Michelle, record her own, soon-to-be-released independent debut, a collection of traditional hymns entitled Be Still My Soul.
“I'm glad I put a kitchen and a bathroom in the studio here,” he laughs. “I'm always working in here, and have two full-time staff members. As soon as I was done with my album, I jumped into hers, and I have another in the works already. It's a constant flow, but even after 10 years in smooth jazz, when I finish writing a song, there's this strange emotional high I get that I can't explain. When I sit back and listen to the finished version, I think, ‘Whoa, that's cool.' At that point, I don't care if anyone hears it beyond the room. It's about me creating something I personally enjoy.”
Performing over 60 shows a year (he added Christmas tours with Dave Koz the last two), Culbertson has shared that enjoyment in a very intense way with thousands of fans who have seen him grow into one of the genre's premier live concert attractions. Emotionally and physically, his exuberant stage show is a world away from the slightly introverted 20-year-old kid who in 1993 wrote and recorded the tracks for his breakthrough debut, Long Night Out (released in 1994) in a small converted bedroom studio in his apartment at DePaul University in Chicago . The Jazz Studies major was working his way through college writing jingles for United Airlines, Oldsmobile, Sears and McDonald's, but quit just shy of graduating when his solo career took off.
When Long Night Out became a hit, his label, Bluemoon, told him it was time to hit the road, but at the time, the young musician had no idea if he could connect with an audience. “I had no clue about being a frontman,” he says. “The only live gigs I ever did was playing trombone in horn sections in jazz clubs and in school ensembles, but I didn't have to talk to anyone or run around and be entertaining. Harry Hmura, my guitarist friend who played on my first three records, was a seasoned pro, however, and told me how to prepare mentally and logistically for life on the road. In those days, radio stations had a lot of rising star concerts, and I played quite a few that summer. They'd fly us in, put us in a hotel, and give us $500. I thought, hey, this might be cool.”
The first two of these were highly memorable, but for entirely different reasons. “The first one was actually a more intimate show at DePaul for students, friends and family members, in a room where the school bands rehearsed,” he says. “On my website I have a picture of that first concert, and in the audience you can see Michelle, my future wife, sitting in the audience. I met her for the first time that night! My first gig out was comparatively a bust, an outdoor show in Cleveland where the weather was bad and something like six people showed up. So I treated it like a rehearsal. I've come a long way since then.”
Culbertson's transformation from tentative to confident stage performer was a gradual one, as he discovered through trial and error what sort of songs and moves worked, what didn't and the antics that got the crowds the most riled up. His other longtime instrument, the trombone, became a staple of the act when he saw the incredible mobility it afforded him compared to the keyboard. He became more comfortable playing for large crowds as he kept releasing more albums, because it became clear that fans were there to see and hear him (and certain requested songs) specifically. His ultra-sexy moves have been part of the act since 2000, when he and Koz engaged in a playful trombone-sax challenge during one of the saxman's summer gigs.
“I said to the audience, ‘Well the trombone is the sexiest of all instruments because, well, it's longer,'” Culbertson laughs. “From there, I just started realizing that smooth jazz was about making people feel good, and there was a huge romantic component to that. None of this was ever planned out, and my shows are still spontaneous. Musicians in this genre have to under-stand that this is the entertainment business. If you play a song just as it sounds on your record, the fans may as well just listen at home. I want fans to say they want to come and see me, not just hear me. When I play live now, it's half about the music, half about the visuals.”
Another highlight of any Culbertson show since 2003 has been having his dad, Jim Culbertson––still band director at MacArthur High School in Decatur, Illinois, as he was when Brian was a student there–– playing trumpet in the horn section. Like everything else, this was not a contrivance; the younger Culbertson simply needed live horns to equal the brassy sounds from Come On Up and asked dad to join the band.
“He always said he wished he could see every show I play, and now he has the best seat in the house!” Culbertson says. “He especially loves hanging out after the show and working the autograph line. While people wait to talk to me, he's out there talking to them, getting their immediate reaction. Everyone gets to meet him, so when they finally reach me, they say, ‘Man, your dad is so cool!' It's also been great spending so much time with him after so many years being apart, with him living in Illinois and me in California.”
In addition to producing her first album, Culbertson has always made his wife, Michelle, part of his act as well, at least in the studio. She has sung on several of his projects, but adds a unique and subtle violin line to “Dreaming of You,” one of the tracks from It's On Tonight. Michelle, who hadn't played that instrument in years, pulled it out of her closet for nostalgia's sake one day. Her husband heard her playing and intuitively wrote a harmony line for her. The Culbertsons' working relationship extends to a sweetly simple romantic life, where they take driving weekend trips up the coast to Carmel and Santa Barbara, or just crash at the end of the day and watch movies all evening, before bed.
“My life has gotten more interesting since I turned 30 two years ago,” says Culbertson. “I felt I started getting more respect from people, like I was this official adult, and my attitude about doing business changed. I'm more my own person, making my own decisions now, rather than just being the kid going with the flow. Being thrown into the limelight so unexpectedly at a young age could have been difficult, but I responded well to the pressure and think I came through okay. There's still this kid inside me, though, who some-times looks out at a cheering audience and wonders, ‘Wow, what's this? Are they really clapping for me?' I never get tired of that incredible interaction with the audience.”
Brian Culbertson's current tour includes, among other dates, the following performances:
Aug. 6: 8th Annual 98.9 Smooth Jazz Festival at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, located at 14111 N.E. 145th St. , in Woodinville , Washington . For more information on this show, visit kwjz.com online.
Oct. 2: Thornton Winery's Champagne Jazz Series, at 32575 Rancho California Road , in Temecula, California. For tickets or more information on this show, call (951) 699-3021, or log on to www.jazzconcerts.com.
Nov.11-20: All-Star Smooth Jazz Cruise, which departs Galveston, Texas, on Nov. 13, with ports of call to Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Belize aboard the Carnival Elation, and at the pre-cruise festival Nov. 11 & 12. To book this cruise, or for more information, call (877) JAZZ-SAX, or log on to www.allstarcruise.com.
Culbertson's website can be accessed on the Internet at www.brianculbertson.com.
||Long Night Out
||Somethin' Bout Love
||Nice & Slow
||Come On Up
||It's On Tonight
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