After eleven inspired albums that have passionately surveyed a broad spectrum of musical styles and prominently featured many of music’s finest players, R&B/Jazz multi-instrumentalist Brian Culbertson decided to keep conceptualism to a minimum and simply title his twelfth album XII (the Roman numeral for twelve). Packed with astounding guest performances from the likes of renowned R&B singer Avant (on the first scheduled AC/Urban AC single “Skies Wide Open”), Brian McKnight, Faith Evans, Kenny Lattimore and Ray Parker Jr. to Go-Go music pioneer Chuck Brown and acoustic guitar legend Earl Klugh (on the first smooth jazz-radio single “That’s Life”), Brian’s latest GRP Records CD is 12 fresh offerings from the man for whom exciting ideas and combinations flow faithfully…like water… Read more
“I was just noticing that there are a lot of ‘12s’ in my life,” Brian muses… “I was born on January 12, I’ve been living in Los Angeles for 12 years now and have been married to my beautiful wife Michelle for 12 years. There are 12 notes on the piano…and it was at the age of 12 that I knew I was going to be a professional musician. Also over the years, 1s and 2s have been in the addresses of all the places I’ve lived.” As he started working on the album, Brian thought of yet another way to make his fans a part of the creative process in a brilliant extension of the DVD he created last year, Live From The Inside. “I decided to create a video blog to give fans a chance to watch me make the album from start to finish. Almost daily, they could watch me execute and explain every step of the process, including seeing me in sessions with all of my amazingly talented friends. The response has been phenomenal with many people tuning in every day to see what I’m up to. To ‘Twitter’ about the project, I labeled the topic #BCXII. Someone said that would be a great title for the album, so it stuck.”
XII kicks off with a blast as Brian drops down into a style of funk music indigenous to the Washington, D.C., area known as Go-Go music with the party starter “Feelin’ It.” To do it up right, he called upon the king of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, leader of the band the Soul Searchers who are world-renowned for the ’70s smash “Bustin’ Loose,” the song that put Go-Go on the map. “I met Chuck last year when I played on the Capitol Jazz Super Cruise,” Brian enthuses. “I went to see his show and was blown away – two hours of non-stop funk. And I was right there in the middle of the dance floor with everybody else…gettin’ down! When I got back, I called him to be on my record…’cuz I had to have a taste of that.” “Feelin’ It” features Chuck playing guitar and singing, and comedian Sinbad (a one-time drummer) adding live hi-hat, a rhythm guitar lick…and a lil’ “funny business.” The result plays like a sequel to the song “Funkin’ Like My Father” that Brian cut with Bootsy Collins on Bringin’ Back The Funk.
Half a dozen of XII’s numbers are vocal showcases. “Out on the Floor” features multi-platinum Grammy-winner Brian McKnight on a Chicago Steppers groove— a dancer’s delight and a change of pace from the ballads for which he is primarily known. “He and I had met a few times before,” Culbertson explains of the other Brian, “but it was L.A. radio morning show host Pat Prescott that put us together when I told her my idea of mixing his smooth approach on top of a dance groove.” Culbertson takes that concept a notch higher with vocalist supreme Kenny Lattimore who brings even more edge to the strings-kissed dance jam “Another Love.” Kenny graced Brian’s 2001 CD Nice & Slow singing and co-writing the futuristic love ballad “Someone.” Brian brings him back almost a decade later to flex his skills on a more fiery showcase.
R&B powerhouse Faith Evans is a pleasant surprise within these proceedings on the attitude jam “Don’t U Know Me By Now” – a piece that features colorful arrangement flourishes such as tubular bells, harp and strings. “Faith being on this project kind of happened out of nowhere,” Brian laughs. “When Chuck Brown came to cut ‘Feelin’ It,’ he came with producer Chucky Thompson who insisted I meet ‘a friend’ of his. All of a sudden, Faith comes strolling in and we proceeded to hang and party—for, like, eight hours! She asked what I was up to and I told her I was looking for a female vocalist for one of my tunes. She replied, ‘Well, I’m a female vocalist’– just like that — so I played her the demo and she assured me she could nail it…which she did.”
Then there’s Ray Parker Jr., Brian’s legendary friend and neighbor who has previously appeared on his albums with smokin’ signature guitar licks. This time, Brian also tapped Ray for his songwriting and coolly distinctive vocal style as well as a taste of rapturous guitar on the sexy Isley Brothers-esque, blue-lights-in-the-basement throwback “I Wanna Love You.” [Note: “I wanna love you” is the opening line of one of the Isley’s most beloved ballads, “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love).”] The cherry on top: Brian adding a Moog synthesizer solo in the spirit of Isley’s keyboardist Chris Jasper. As if all that vocal magic isn’t enough, Brian is truly going to tug upon heartstrings with the picturesque “Skies Wide Open,” a love lyric overflowing with vivid metaphors penned and sung by R&B stalwart Avant—brought in by the song’s prolific co-producer Rex Rideout (who worked with Avant on last year’s acclaimed Silky Soul Music…An All-Star Tribute to Maze featuring Frankie Beverly project).
The instrumentals on XII hold just as many wonderful musical moments as well. On the soft side is the Suzanne Ciani-like “Waiting For You.” The origin of this dreamscape ironically stems from Brian’s longtime collaborator Stephen Lu coming up with the initial idea, demoing it and sending it to Brian to get his opinion–all while waiting on phone-hold with his insurance company (a most productive use of time). Brian’s friend Sheldon Reynolds, along with his wife, layered their vocals on this to sound like a choir. Sheldon, also a guitarist, additionally co-wrote “Forever,” which opens as a solo piano meditation then blossoms into a soaring rhapsody featuring churchy organ and a guitar solo by Michael Thompson.
Of course, Culbertson continues to bring the funk…though this time with the new twist of strings, as evidenced on the feel-good instrumental “It’s Time” as well as the aforementioned vocal tracks “Another Love” and “Don’t U Know Me By Now.” Is Brian experiencing a Giorgio Moroder/Chic strings flashback? “I’ve always loved strings,” he shrugs. “When it comes to the arrangements I hear in my head, anything that comes to mind I go with and never question it. My mind was screaming strings, so I brought in several players and layered them to make the sound rich and full.” “It’s Time” comes complete with two other Brian signatures – killin’ horns…and a bass break! Speaking of bass, Brian utilizes live bass and synth bass masterfully on “Stay Wid It,” which his mind-in-overdrive insisted could use a Mini-Moog solo, a la the great Chick Corea. “I was just messin’ around with the Moog, but it sounded so good I kept it,” he says. “It’s a first take which is why the solo sounds so spontaneous, but it works in a weird sort of way.”
Brian Culbertson began his quest in music at the age of 8 on piano, adding drums at 9, trombone at 10 then bass at 12. He grew up in Decatur, IL, loving genre-crossing jazz-pop artists such as Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Tower of Power, the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Yellowjackets and Maynard Ferguson. So naturally gifted was Brian, his 7th grade piano recital consisted of all original tunes. Brian flourished in high school bands with his father, Jim Culbertson, as the school’s award-winning jazz band director, moved to Chicago to complete his studies at private DePaul University, then went on to compose jingles for clients such as United Airlines, Oldsmobile, Sears and McDonald’s in the bustling city’s highly competitive advertising community.
In 1994, at age 20, Brian self-produced his debut, Long Night Out, followed in short order by Modern Life (driven by the hit single “Come To Me, this 1995 album was his first album to top R&R and Gavin’s Contemporary Jazz charts), and After Hours (1996). With 1997’s Secrets, the hits kept comin’ with “So Good” and “On My Mind.” His 1999 follow-up, Somethin’ Bout Love, also sat high among the CJ Top 20 for nearly a year with the two No. 1 singles, “Back In The Day” and “Do You Really Love Me?”
In 2001, Brian released Nice & Slow (featuring special guest trumpeter Herb Alpert and singer/songwriter Kenny Lattimore), which spent six weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart thanks to the No. 1 singles “Get It On” and “All About You.” Then came Come On Up (2003), highlighted by a blazing cover of Earth Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire” and the beautiful “Our Love.” 2005’s It’s On Tonight found him making the switch from Warner Bros. to GRP/Verve for a sensual-leaning project featuring the lead-off single “Hooking Up” plus “Let’s Get Started,” as well as special guests Patti Austin, Will Downing, Chris Botti, Kirk Whalum, Ledisi and Boney James. A Soulful Christmas, the 2006 holiday album,swiftly followed.
2008 found him blasting back after two years with the all-star blowout Bringing Back the Funk, a salute to ’70s soul music that he co-produced with the legendary Maurice White, and featured William “Bootsy” Collins and Phelps “Catfish” Collins plus members of the Rubber Band and the Horny Horns (all out of Parliament-Funkadelic), Larry Graham (of Sly & The Family Stone and his own Graham Central Station), Larry Dunn (of Earth Wind & Fire), Greg Adams (from Tower of Power), Tony Maiden and Bobby Watson (of Rufus), Michael Bland, Cora Dunham and Rhonda Smith (from Prince’s bands), Maceo Parker & Fred Wesley (from James Brown’s JB’s band), Musiq Soulchild, David T. Walker, Ronnie Laws, Gerald Albright, Tom Scott, Paul Jackson Jr., Perri, and many more L.A. session greats. This was an unprecedented assemblage of music royalty participating on the CD with its churchy standout “The House of Music” (which Brian co-wrote with Larry Graham) and his tenth chart-topper as a leader, “Always Remember.” In total, Brian has produced or performed on over 20 No. 1 records.
Last year, Brian produced the ultimate concert souvenir with the dual DVD/CD package Live From The Inside, capturing for posterity what the experience of making music is really like. “It’s not just about the show,” he insists, “it’s about everything that happens before and after.” Far from a stodgy ol’ documentary, it’s a dynamically lensed feature that allows you to get up close and personal with all the action – backstage, on stage, on the road and in the studio – with ever changing angles and focal points. It features Brian, his band and another all-star assembly of friends/guests. The package is a brisk seller at Brian’s explosive concerts, affording fans a special way to take him home with them.
“All `N All,” Brian’s life has been an amazing ride, a journey he reflects upon in the two remaining selections on XII. First is the instrumental “That’s Life,” a song with multiple moods reflecting the ups and downs of life, and featuring a monumental pairing of two Detroit guitar greats – Ray Parker Jr. and the incomparable acoustic king Earl Klugh. “I met Earl at the 3rd Annual Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards where Ray was presenting him with a Lifetime Achievement Award,” Brian reflects. “I told him that evening that I would love to work with him one day. That day arrived on this album. All three of us wrote the song. Ray and I started the track which was, as usual for us, pretty aggressive, but once Earl got into the booth, he smoothed it right out. I could not believe that after knowing each other all these years, growing up as kids in Detroit, Earl & Ray had never written a song together. Ray likes to joke, ‘It took a White kid from Chicago to make this happen!’ I’m just thankful it happened on my record.”
More literally reflective is the celestial, existential rumination “I Don’t Know” (featuring the voice of spoken word enchantress Natalie Stewart of the duo Floetry) which Brian conceived as a mood/think piece that closes his album on a contemplative note. It moves from futuristic synth sounds to a sweeping and cinematic string-fueled ascension…then a coda of quiet. “I was envisioning a guy walking around a city like New York pondering the meaning of life,” Brian elucidates. “The music just spoke to me with a kind of ultimate ambivalence about every thing…but it’s not meant to be depressing. It’s just that man may think he knows all of what’s going on around him, but ultimately he does not. I believe we know some of the story but not all the story…and probably never will.”
One thing that this multi-talented man’s fans can rest assured of is that, with twelve albums and counting, Brian Culbertson always brings his very best – and the very best out of others – in all of his broad-ranging musical endeavors, including his intimate and immensely popular video blog…and the engaging musical tapestry that is XII.
01 – Brian Culbertson – Together Tonight (Nice & Slow, 2001)
02 – Brian Culbertson – Long Night Out (Long Night Out, 1994)
03 – Brian Culbertson – Funkin” (Bringing Back The Funk, 2008)
04 – Chuck Brown – Funky Get Down (Snippet) (We”re About the Business, 2007)
05 – Brian Culbertson – I Don”t Know (feat. Natalie Stewart) (XII, 2010)
06 – Brian Culbertson – Skies Wide Open (feat. Avant) (XII, 2010)
Background music during the interview:
Brian Culbertson – I Wanna Know (feat. Kirk Whalum), Brian Culbertson – Just Another Day (feat. Herb Alpert and Jeff Lorber), Brian Culbertson – City Lights, Brian Culbertson – Nice & Slow, Brian Culbertson – Without Your Love, Brian Culbertson – Always Remember, Brian Culbertson – Serpentine Fire, Brian Culbertson – Groove, Brian Culbertson – Feelin” It, Brian Culbertson – I Wanna Love You.