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  • Smooth Jazz Network

Brian Culbertson: Behind the Beats

Updated: May 4, 2022

Each week we'll take you 'Behind the Beats' to learn more about the artists that play on our airwaves. This week, an extended interview with 2020's Artist of the Year, Brian Culbertson.

This has been a strange year to say the least…. With now touring, no Napa Weekend … What have you been up to?

Well, for the first week (March 14-19), I cleaned my studio. Haha… Then on Friday, March 20th, I started streaming live from the studio every Friday night and haven’t stopped yet! I had been going on Facebook LIVE randomly over the past 4 years (when I was actually home on a Friday, which was rare). But with the lockdown and my entire 70-show “XX” Tour postponed, I felt I had to just keep streaming. Like many artists, I started with just my iPhone. However, I progressively got annoyed by the lack of audio/visual quality so I slowly researched ‘how to stream like a pro’ :) Then on May 15th, I debuted my first “The Hang with Brian Culbertson” with multi-cameras, stereo high def audio, graphics, etc. And each week I’d strive to make the show better and better. Being a ‘one-man-show,’ I had to figure out how to run everything myself live which is extremely challenging. My brain was definitely in overload in the beginning as I was camera switching, playing songs, cueing graphics, taking live questions from the chat, and so much more!! At this point however (over 8 months in), I feel pretty comfortable with all of that now.

I also started painting (mostly acrylic on canvas). It’s been a long time of thinking about it, but now that I’m not traveling, I’ve had some time to get into it and I absolutely love it! You know I’m all about the visuals as well as the music, so I feel this is a natural progression for me creatively and I can’t wait to start sharing some of the artwork with everyone soon.

Tell us about your last few singles.

From my latest album, XX, the first single was track 1 called “Get Up!” which features both Mr. Talkbox & Marcus Anderson. I threw everything but the kitchen sink into this track! It’s a funky dance groove with programmed drums, live drums (Khari Parker), synth bass, live bass (Alex Al), ‘Prince-esque’ synths, funky guitars (Paul Jackson Jr.), horn section (Michael Stever, Marqueal Jordan, and myself), timbales (Lenny Castro), plus layered saxes and an 80’s sax solo (Marcus Anderson), and 32 tracks of Talkbox!!! Oh yeah, with piano on top of it all. It was a very experimental track that I honestly didn’t know how was going to turn out until it was finished. I just keep layering one part at a time until it was done.

The second single was “Keep Movin’” featuring Everette Harp on tenor sax. This was more of a traditional funky smooth jazz track, but with a little more excitement than normal. The origins of this song started at a sound check in Atlanta, GA with my guitar player and bass player jamming to the initial riff that they came up with. I heard it reverberating down the halls into my dressing room and quickly ran out to the stage and recorded it on my phone. When I got home a couple days later, I called Rishon (bass player) and we finished writing the song together over FaceTime as he lives in Buffalo and I’m in Chicago.

With the current (third) single, “Time Flies,” we decided to change up the vibe. While the first two singles were very upbeat and funky, “Time Flies” is a much more contemplative yet uplifting song. The initial idea of the song was sent to me by Nicholas Cole. I took his verse melody (which already sounded like something I would play) and then added the Chorus section which opens up and has a more soaring quality. The original title was “Just Kids” which was cool, but I thought it should be a title that might reflect back on childhood, hence “Time Flies.”

You’ve had 30 #1 Billboard singles since you hit the smooth jazz scene in 1994. Back then, did you think this would be your path?

With the new album, it’s 32 now, hahaha… Let’s face it, at 21 years old, I certainly didn’t know what was going to transpire. I suppose that I had hoped for any career in music (i.e. songwriter, producer, film composer, etc.). Thankfully, smooth jazz radio embraced my music and that allowed me to keep making records and build up my touring fan base. It sure was a long hard road in the beginning however. But looking back on it, the way that it all worked out made for a much more sustainable and long term situation for me and I’m grateful for that.

You are one of the more stylish guys in smooth jazz…

I feel that just like finding your musical sound/style, you have to find a visual style as well. Imagine EW&F without all their amazing outfits back in the day. I believe that greatly helped tell their ‘story’ so I’ve always taken cues from my favorite artists/bands that have stood the test of time both musically and visually. Bottom line, you have to find a ‘look’ that you feel comfortable in. If it’s too outrageous (like imagine me in an EW&F outfit) or too dull (in just a black suit, white shirt, black tie), it would be inauthentic to who I am. But if you feel good in it, it will give you more confidence on stage, on camera, etc., which will in turn help the listener understand the music more.

I love seeing you live, especially when you break out the trombone. What was your first musical instrument? How did you decide to mix the trombone into your live performances?

I started on piano (age 8), then drum set (age 9), then trombone was third for me (at age 10 - 5th grade band). I started playing trombone on my shows from the start as initially I was more comfortable performing live on the horn, much more so than on the keyboard mainly because I had never performed live on a keyboard before my first album came out! I was known around Chicago as a trombone player and was constantly gigging on that doing weddings, corporate parties, club dates, etc.

Talk about the move back to your home town of Chicago.

The move back to Chicago (from LA) was actually sparked out of playing in London for 2 weeks every year. The vibe in London, as in many European cities, is more about walking around and feeling the energy. Chicago is one of the only cities in the US with that similar feel (save NYC of course). In Los Angeles, no one walks anywhere, not even a block away, LOL. We were all just in our metal cans speeding (or creeping) down the arteries of the great sprawl. I suppose Michelle and I were just both ready for a change and being back has sparked a new creative energy for me which has spawned now 7 albums (which include 2 live albums) in just 6 years. I mean c’mon, I would have never made Winter Stories in LA!! I also frequent The Art Institute of Chicago which is very inspiring to me. I just love the architecture, the vibe, the art, the music, and the food!

Tell us about some of the artists you have collaborated with and the experiences you have had.

Wow, there are so many great memories it’s hard to choose. Obviously, working with Maurice White on my Bringing Back The Funk album was a milestone. He’d say, ‘I think we need to turn up the horns and make them sizzle more’ in his very subdued speaking voice. I learned so much from him.

What is your dream collaboration?

Co-write a song with Sting and have him and Sade sing a duet on it, featuring me on piano :) That’d be something!

Have any TV shows or movies you'd recommend? Anything you've been binge-watching?

There’s a French TV show called “Call My Agent” on Netflix which is amazing. It’s about a talent agency in Paris with many of the A-list French actors. It’s hilarious and brilliantly written/directed. On a serious note, the new movie Mr. Jones with Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby, and James Norton is extremely poignant with stunning cinematography. And I have caught up on a few good books this year too, including the epic “Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson (who also wrote Einstein, and Steve Jobs).

Plans for 2021?

Not really sure how things are gonna shake out at this point. For now, I’m just gonna keep painting and streaming “The Hang” every Friday night at 5pm PT/8pm ET!! At least until they allow us to go back on tour. However, I definitely plan on continuing the show even as things open back up. I am also working on some interesting new music that will come out hopefully in the spring. It’s more akin to a film soundtrack however. It is called “Soundscapes - A Visual Album” which will feature an accompanying video with each of the 10 tracks. Disclaimer: This is NOT an album for radio, ha!

Tell us more about "Music from The Hang."

I just released “Music from The Hang” which is a compilation of 16 tracks from the show, including the theme song, “It’s Friday Night.” Plus, many people don’t know that I actually stream every Monday and Wednesday nights too as part of “The Hang Club” membership. I started this membership utilizing the Patreon platform which allows fans to support the show monthly at six different levels, starting at just $10/mo. This has been a huge help financially to keep the show going at a high level as I use the money to re-invest by purchasing new equipment and by hiring outside help when needed. You can also watch all past episodes on the website which is www.TheHang.TV.

Learn more about Brian Culbertson here.

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