Brian Culbertson is a gifted composer, arranger, keyboardist, and trombonist who has just released a new Christmas CD with a real upbeat interpretation of some Christmas classics. Featuring all live musicians and a new song written by Brian, sung by Michael McDonald. Fresh and innovative as all of Brian's work, it is cutting edge. Brian has again pushed the envelope and expanded the horizons of Smooth Jazz. Incredibly talented, Brian has grown with each album he has produced since his first CD at the tender age of 20. Phenomenally, he made his first CD in his apartment while a student at DePaul University in Chicago and became a front man without ever having performed outside of a school setting.
SJN: Christmas is approaching and you have a new Christmas CD, please tell us about it?
BC: It is called A Soulful Christmas and it is very exciting for me because it’s a lot of different styles and variations and ups and downs, but all with the Christmas theme going throughout. So I basically took all the Christmas classics that everyone knows and loves, Joy to the World, Jingle Bells, the First Noel, and all these songs and put my own twist to them all, which everyone tries to do. The other thing that is cool about this record is that it is all live instrumentation. There are no computers involved, or sequencers, or synthesizers. It is all real musicians playing real instruments….everything from drums, to percussion, to orchestra, to choir, to brass, to piano, to guitars, bass, you name it, it’s all on there. So that was a lot of fun and the reason I did that was so that five, ten years down the road, it still sounds good and current. A lot of times if you are using the latest technology and the cool sounds that just came out, in a few years, it is going to sound old and dated. When you use all live instruments, it’s real and it’s organic sounding, it never really goes out of style. With a Christmas record, people want to pull it out year after year, so I wanted it to have some longevity to it. It definitely sounds classic…if you will!
SJN: You’ve written one new song, can you tell us about it?
BC: The new song is called; All Through the Christmas Night and I wrote this song specifically for Michael McDonald. He’s just one of my all time favorites. I had the opportunity to spend three months on the road with him year’s ago and got to know him well. Really the nicest, most humble person you will meet. He’s always telling stories, hilarious. I knew that someone day I wanted to record with him and I started writing this song and instantly I knew that this was a Michael McDonald song, if I ever heard one. Thankfully, I went to see him and he was into it, and I said, “Oh my God for real? And he said ‘Oh ya, no problem, let’s do it’. So I went to his place in Nashville, a beautiful place, by the way, and recorded the song and it turned out so well. The whole theme of that song, the message is basically it is about a guy who every year around Christmas time, I think a lot of people can relate to this, it’s kind of a hard time of year for a lot of people and the world is coming down on you and things are tough, but if you have that person that you love, they will make everything good. They’re with you on Christmas and it is cool.
SJN: You have a Christmas Tour to compliment the release of your new CD. Please tell us about your tour?
BC: We are doing 21 cities and we are going out with Bobby Caldwell, Warren Hill, Ray Parker Jr. and Eric Darius. I have been touring with Eric Darius for the last year and a half and he is so amazing. He has a lot of young energy and incredible natural talent. Bobby is such a beautiful, lyrical singer. I just love the way he sings the classic Christmas ballads. He’s going to do I’ll Be Home for Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, those kinds of songs, you know he just melts. It will be like a big all-star super band with everyone on stage together. My band is going to back up everyone. My regular guys, Felix on Drums, George on guitar, Eddie on keys, Lamar on bass and I am also bringing a trumpet player and an extra trombone player, as a backup horn section because I have a lot of actual real horns on my Christmas record. This is a long tour that interferes with my dads teaching, so he will not be able to go. He is bummed!
Most of the time my dad makes the gigs because they are on the weekends. This tour is going seven days a week, for four weeks. We are traveling around on a tour bus, and it’s about half flying. We are going up to Seattle and Alaska, and are playing in Alaska on the shortest day of the year, so there will probably be only one or two hours of light. It’s going to be pitch black the rest of the day. I’m excited because I’m sure the people up there will be receptive, how often do shows go up there? I don’t know how much entertainment they get. I’m hopeful they will be a good audience.
SJN: You grew up in a very musical family, when did you first become interested in music?
BC: I grew up with music before I was even born yet, my dad was always jamming music in the house. It was just a natural thing. I actually started classical piano lessons when I was eight. I guess they felt that was the right time. But I was always interested before, I had a recorder and I banged on the pots and pans when I was three years old. I always was into music.
Right after piano I started taking drum set lessons, so I played that for a while, then I picked up the trombone when I was in fifth grade. Then in junior high school I wanted to play bass, so I played funk bass in the jazz band, and played trombone also. In high school, I played the euphonium. No one really knows what that is unless you are in a band (ha-ha). Basically it looks like a miniature tuba that sits on your lap, and the bell goes up to the ceiling and there are four valves, similar valves to trumpet. The mouth piece is exactly the same as a trombone, however, so I already had a mouth piece since I already played trombone, and my dad played trumpet, so he taught me euphonium. It is more of a symphonic band instrument and I played it all the way through college in the wind ensemble. It is more of a classical instrument. Then I picked up trumpet, as well, and I play trumpet on a lot of my records.
SJN: Most musicians in smooth jazz come up through the ranks as sidemen learning from the veterans. I read that you never played in a band other than school programs before your first CD became a hit. Without the background, how did you develop your musical style and your showmanship?
BC: I think the style really just happened over the years of really just doing it. Obviously, I got thrown into being an artist very young, I was 20 years old. I was still going to college when I got my first record deal. I didn’t really have an opportunity to get a style together. It just happened to be what I did naturally. And then over the years it kept evolving as I did more records. I think that is the same as with my live show. When I first started out, was just 1994, I probably wasn’t that good, I had no experience being a front man and I was very nervous, but over the years you get more confident and also when you first start out no one knows who you are, no one knows your music, so you are going to play for these people and they don’t know what you are all about. It’s tough to go out there, you just play and hope people will like it. Over the years, as I got more radio play, people started recognizing the music so they come to the concerts and they already knew the music. So, now it is just a blast!
SJN: Where was it and what were your thoughts when you stepped onto a stage to perform live for the very first time?
BC: I did one show at my college, DePaul University in Chicago. I did a show, just to get a show under my belt, for friends and family. The first professional show I did was in Cleveland, Ohio at a small club down on the flats. Unfortunately, it was on a night that there were many other concerts and a football game, so there were only 16 people there. Of course, no one knew who I was. I had just released an album and it was getting a little airplay. I figured it was another good rehearsal. You have to start somewhere.
SJN: How does that compare to how you feel today?
BC: It’s a little different. (Ha-ha). Let’s see, fast forward twelve years. Believe it or not, I still get nervous a little bit. I little bit of nervous energy, I think that it is good, it gets me pumped, and it gets me excited. Hearing the crowd out there, it’s definitely exciting. The first moment I walk out on stage it’s like wow they're actually here to see my show. Pretty weird. (Ha-ha) But it’s cool! Obviously you get so much energy from the audience. Going out there when the crowd is pumped, just gives me more energy to play harder and better and just have a good time out there.
SJN: Do you remember the first time you knew that music was your passion?
BC: I remember one time when I was in seventh grade, my dad had a buddy who did scoring for TV shows and industrial films. I went over to his house and he let me work with his computer and keyboards. I remember I put a whole song together. I programmed the drums; played all the drum parts in, played the bass parts, the keyboard parts, and I put a sting line on there. This was the first time I had experience doing that and I was freaking out. I couldn’t believe how cool that was. At the end of the day, he made a cassette tape of it and I think I wore that tape out. It was just so exciting, it was like ‘wow’ I want to do this, and this is so cool, make music out of nothing. I was just totally floored by that.
You know, this was fairly new technology. I think that I grew up in an age when technology was just starting to get exciting. I’m one of the first generations to grow up with the personal computer, the Macintosh and the keyboards that all interface together. Basically, I could be a one man band. Before that the technology just wasn’t out there.
SJN: You've toured and been featured with some of the best musicians in the industry. Of those experiences, do any stand out as being particularly career-changing?
BC: My first big tour was with Dave Koz, Norman Brown and Michael McDonald. That tour really raised my perception and heightened my performance skills, playing with these total icons who had been out for so long. Just really watching these guys and seeing how they work the stage, I really, really grasp onto that and it seriously helped me elevate my show as well. Then obviously, every other experience, you always take something from.
SJN: Because you travel extensively, what has been the hardest adjustment that you’ve had to make - musically and professionally?
BC: I have a really good balance of touring and working at home in the studio. I love being home. I love working in the studio in my backyard. It’s a really good balance because we go out most weekends, then I’m home during the week a lot. The only time that I am gone a lot is for something like the Christmas tour.
SJN: Besides your father, who would you consider to be your biggest musical influences when you were growing up?
BC: David Sanborn, Sting, Chick Corea, Brecker Brothers, Yellowjackets, Earth, Wind & Fire.
SJN: How does that compare to today?
BC: I listen to so much today; with Ipod you have everything at your finger tips, which is so great. I listen to a lot of pop rock stuff, everything from John Mayer to electronic euro stuff like Imaging Heap and Fru, Fru, a lot of rock, the group Keen. There are tons of these bands out there doing really interesting music--- Postal Service, Aqualung.
SJN: How and when did you first “discover” smooth jazz and what inspired you to decide on this genre?
BC: My dad was really into David Sanborn, Pat Methany, and Chick Corea, more the fusion jazz that sort of melted into what became Smooth Jazz. I really grew up with that music in the house and that’s what I really liked writing. Not being a singer, I couldn’t do pop music as it was all piano based, so it just made sense.
SJN: What is the best thing about playing smooth jazz?
BC: Smooth Jazz is a great combination of a lot of different styles. There’s jazz influence, there’s pop melody influence. Smooth Jazz is very melodic. Everything I do has a catchy melody that you can grab onto. I think there’s a lot of R&B influence, a lot of my drums and rhythm are a real R&B flavor. It’s a combination of all these styles put together what make a real interesting sound.
SJN: What do you see as the Future of Smooth Jazz?
BC: In general, the sale of records is down, but that’s with the whole industry. We need to find other creative ways of making money.
SJN: Somewhere I read that you write jingles for commercials and TV shows. Is this so, and can you tell us about it?
BC: I did those several years ago when I was living in Chicago. I worked for a jingle company for about four years I would write jingles during the day with another guy, I would work on my own records at night and on the weekends, and I would go on tour on the weekends, so my schedule was really insane. Doing jingles is really, really stressful with lots of deadlines. But, it was incredible musical training because every day we would do total different music. Some days, we would do four or five different spots and each spot was a different genre.
SJN: What would you like people to take away from your show?
BC: I think mainly I hope they come and are entertained and had a good time, and enjoyed themselves and maybe got up and danced a little bit and let loose. So many people go to their jobs everyday 9 to 5 and they have this routine, but when they come to my show, I hope that they forget about regular life and just have a good time and laugh and smile and feel good and go home a say ‘wow, that was fun’. That is what music is all about, really escaping. It’s what music does; it puts you in a different world. That’s what’s so amazing about music is that no matter what the style it is, it takes you somewhere.
SJN: What is that one thing you have always wanted to say to your fans?
BC: Thank you, obviously without the fan out there I wouldn’t be making music. Or I would, but I’d be living out of a cardboard box. The fans are what drive all of us.
SJN: What keeps you grounded and how do you stay focused?
BC: Having a good strong base, having grown up in the Midwest, it is family oriented and my wife is from Chicago, as well. She’ll keep me grounded, that’s for sure! It’s a good thing to have a great partner that’s with you that can keep your head from blowing up. But, I think that it easy to keep your head on straight if you are true about what you do. We’re all just trying to make good music.
SJN: How do you think the real you differs from the public image of you?
BC: My stage persona is more of a wild look. I’m not that exciting at home. On stage, you’re pumped up, the adrenalins flowing, it’s exciting, and there are people screaming, and the music is jamming. That is what most people see. They only see you onstage or right after the show. At home, I’m just a regular person. You know, I go to the grocery store and I do the laundry or whatever.
SJN: Is there one over-riding belief or philosophy that drives you, even when you're up against roadblocks and challenges?
BC: I think that we should have as much fun in life as possible.
SJN: Do you have a master plan of what you want to do and where you want to go in life?
BC: No, I don’t really have a lot of serious goals; I just work on things as I do them and see what it takes me. I’m pretty chill about that.
SJN: Let’s talk about your personal life for a minute. We know that your wife, Michelle, is an opera singer. Please tell us about meeting her and about your life together?
BC: I met her in college at DePaul. She was a freshman when I was a junior. I was playing trombone in the jazz ensemble and she was friends with the bass player, so she would come by and watch our rehearsals. She actually came to the first show I did at DePaul and sat in the front row. She didn’t know that I was into her, but I got all nervous because she was there. So after the show, the bass player introduced us and we went out two days later.
SJN: Do you hope to have kids eventually?
BC: Right now we are happy with our lives and our puppy. We’re having a good time. At this juncture, we’re cool right where we are at. We’ll see!
SJN: So, let’s talk about your puppy, Capucco?
BC: He’s a miniature, long haired dachshund. He is a rare cream color, so he looks like a really tiny golden retriever. He is only ten pounds and he is the coolest dog. He actually acts like a big dog, but he is little. He’s not a hyper, yippy dog. He’s really chill. He’s a lap dog, super cuddly. He doesn’t bark really often, but when he does it’s a big ‘ruff’.
SJN: We know a bit about your dad, what about your Mom?
BC: Her name is Carol and she was really the one who stayed home and took care of me and my sister, Jaime. She went to college and has a degree in drafting. Unfortunately, computers took over and that profession went out the window. She worked for a while after we grew up, but she now works in a chiropractic office. She was the one who helped me the most with my piano lessons. My dad only plays trumpet, so when I was first starting out with piano, she helped me with all of the fingering and trying to get the notes right.
SJN: You mentioned that you have a sister Jaime, please tell us about her?
BC: Jaime lives in Chicago and she is a headhunter who works in the tech industry. She is always interviewing potential clients and trying to take them away from certain companies and woo them to another. She’s in her late twenties, single and living in downtown Chicago.
SJN: When you are not on the road, how do you spend your time?
BC: Well, sort of like this, either working on music in the studio, or on the phone, or answering emails. It’s kind of constant work.
SJN: Do you have any hobbies?
BC: I like watching movies. I like a lot of movies. I have recently been digitizing all my movies into Itunes, so that I can load them onto my iPod. Currently, I have 50 movies in my Ipod. So, I am ready for the tour.
SJN: Do you have a favorite escape?
BC: When we try to escape we spend time in Carmel and if we have more time, we like to go to Europe and really get away. We went to Italy a few weeks ago. Michelle is fluent in Italian because she lived over there for a while. She is also becoming fluent in French, so she is going to be spending time in Paris soon.
SJN: Describe your perfect day?
BC: Well, if I feel cooped up in the studio, I will get in my car and I will drive down Mulhollan Highway towards Malibu. I put all the windows down and open the moon roof and I just drive my Lexus. I love that car!
SJN: If you found a genie in a bottle, what one wish would you have? Music programs in schools?
BC: Besides all of the standard world peace and cure hunger and cancer and all of that stuff, one thing I’d like to work at is saving music programs in the schools, as they are disappearing rapidly. That is definitely very important to me because I would not be here doing what I am doing if there was not music in my school. So many kids are missing out on that escape and that creativity. I’m sure that their grades are suffering because they have no stimulants.
SJN: You have a Christmas tour; will Michael McDonald be joining you for any of your shows?
BC: Well, we don’t know. At this moment, I would say no, but you never know.
SJN: You have the cruise in January. Please tell us about your expectations for the cruise?
BC: This cruise is truly the ultimate smooth jazz fan vacation because of the fact that there are so many things that happen on the cruise that you never ever get to see, including all of the collaborations that happen on stage, as well as the jam sessions. Every night there are three hour jam sessions where any artists can just get up on stage and play with each other, so you never know what is going to happen. It is amazing! That never happens, even in a festival situation. One of the things that is so exciting is the collaborations. Boney James has a show on our boat and he is going to have Norman Brown play on a song, and I going to play on a song. Every concert has tons of guest artists built in. Not to mention all of the extra events during the day. There will be Q&A sessions, and like a sit down with Down to the Bone, and autograph sessions. I will be hosting a ping pong tournament where I will be challenging everyone to a match! Our lineup is incredible as far as the amount of super stars who will be on the boat. It is quite amazing.
SJN: Thank you, for sharing your energy, your passion, your time, for allowing us to get up close and personal.
A Soulful Christmas Oct. 31, 2006
2. Joy To The World
3. Deck The Halls
4. Jingle Bells
5. The First Noel
6. All Through The Christmas Night
7. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
8. Angels We Have Heard On High
9. Some Children See Him
10. Little Drummer Boy
11. This Christmas
12. Silent Night