By Mikey Adam Cohen & Sheryl Aronson
As renowned in music as he is in wines, Brian Culbertson wears many hats: Jazz/R&B/Funk pianist, trombonist, writer, producer, wine maker, philanthropist, influencer as founder of The Napa Valley Jazz Getaway’s Artistic Director, host and featured performer. Recording artist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Culbertson invited an incredible array of artists to take part in the 2016 annual Napa Valley Jazz Getaway, including The Temptations, Michael McDonald, Fourplay, trumpeter Rick Braun, guitarist Stanley Jordan and saxophonists Eric Darius, Gerald Albright, Richard Elliott and Vincent Ingala.
Festival founder Culbertson performed on both keyboards and trombone throughout the festival and once again staging the festival at two venues: Yountville’s Lincoln Theater and Jamieson Ranch Vineyards. These arenas provided the perfect outdoor, pristine backdrop and host to thousands at the festival leg of the getaway. Previous lineups of Brian Culbertson’s Napa Valley Jazz Getaway included Take 6, Ray Parker Jr., Larry Graham & Graham Central Station, sax-men Eric Darius and Michael Lington, guitarist Nick Colionne, DW3 and special guest, comedian Sinbad, the group, BWB with Norman Brown, Kirk Whalum and Rick Braun. Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Ohio Players, Morris Day & The Time, Earl Klugh, Eric Benét, Mavis Staples, Average White Band, comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans and many more.
I love attending and covering this festival annually with my family because it gives fans opportunities to experience and mingle with the artists while dining during wine receptions, autograph sessions, and gold-silver, platinum and VIP only late-night hangs at the host hotel. I’m now friends with the Funkiest Music and wine enthusiasts in the world. We meet up annually in Napa Valley to celebrate the good life with their favorite musicians at this unforgettable lifestyle experience, curated by love for bringing the people what they want. He also gives back in a major way with Silent and live auctions held to benefit The GRAMMY® Foundation, which funds music education programs. Brian Culbertson is my friend and multitalented, super funky with an edge Vinter & Event Host. Brian Culbertson is a joy to spend the week with. – Mikey Adam Cohen
Brian Culbertson’s Napa Valley Jazz Getaway has been one of our annual favorite premier music events to cover since it originated five years ago. We are media that believes in supporting live music as a VIP ticket holder as well. In fact, this is the Cohen’s annual escape to California’s Napa Valley featuring true getaway featuring a-list multi-instrumentalist’s of jazz, good eats, and plenty of wine, created by wine maker Brian Culbertson himself with help of Jameson Winery. Festival goers are treated to spectacular concerts starring legendary jazz, R&B and funk artists at the Lincoln Theater and Jamieson Ranch Vineyards, as well as more intimate shows and VIP events hosted by winery partners. Throughout the Getaway, fans have opportunities to meet and get to know the musicians while feasting upon fine local cuisine during wine tastings and post-concert Late Night Hangs at The Westin Verasa Napa, which is also the host hotel.
Brian Culbertson always brings his very best receiving the 2012 Soul Train Award nomination for Best Jazz Artist & 2012 NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Jazz Album (Dreams). He began his musical journey at the age of 8 on piano, adding drums at 9, trombone at 10 then bass at 12. Loving genre-crossing jazz-pop artists such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Chicago, Tower of Power, The Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Yellowjackets and Chick Corea, he explained that these groups were big influences on his music. He then went on to compose jingles for clients such as United Airlines, Gatorade, Sears and McDonald’s in the bustling city’s highly competitive advertising community throughout the 90’s.
In 1994, at age 20, Brian self-produced his debut album, Long Night Out. Since then, Brian has released fourteen more albums, toured around the world, seen his name at the top of Billboard and radio charts, worked and performed with industry all-stars like Maurice White, Larry Graham, Ray Parker Jr., Musiq Soulchild, Ledisi, Chuck Brown and “Bootsy” Collins to name a few. Regardless of his success, fans can rest be assured that with 15 albums and counting, Brian Culbertson always brings his very best – and brings the very best out of others – in all of his broad-ranging musical endeavors.
Something you may not know about Brian… he has worked with many of the Jazz Genres foundational artists, from Bob James and David Sanborn to The Rippingtons, The Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra, Al Jarreau and Lee Ritenour.
We caught up with Brian Culbertson again at the Jazz West Festival in San Dimas, California and interviewed the multi-instrumentalist about his career and new Funk Tour he will begin in the Fall.
The Hollywood 360 (Sheryl Aronson): How did you decide which musicians to use on different tracks?
BC: A lot of it was instinct, just picking up the phone and telling these artists that I would love to work with you and have you do what you do to bring new life to these older songs. As a producer, the musicians you choose make all the difference. It’s like casting a movie. Once you get the right players, you know almost before they dig in what it will sound like. Every now and then, I would pinch myself, like, can you believe you’re working with so and so? Hearing songs that I wrote in my late teens played by my idols made for some real random goose bump moments. It seemed like a long way from that apartment at DePaul, which wasn’t even soundproofed. So there was that limitation too.
The Hollywood 360: We lost one of our mutual good friend’s all- star drummer Ricky Lawson. I remember you playing at his past fire capacity standing room only tribute show at Spaghettini. I was told he played some of his final sessions ever on your album?
BC: It is so special having Ricky on Beautiful Liar, which I recently performed at his Celebration of Life concert at Spaghettini in Seal Beach, and “Changing Tides.” I worked with him randomly over the years, and every time I hung out with him, he had inspiring words for me. He was the kind of guy who always made you want to be a better person. Ricky, as many people know, was the drummer on Whitney Houston’s hit “I Will Always Love You,” and he was legendary for his big ballad drumming.
The Hollywood 360: Tell us about your band Brian…
My band is made up of some of the most incredible musicians anywhere, and I want you to get to know them. I’m featuring Marqueal Jordan and Chance Howard below. Chance Howard co-wrote several songs, sings a lot of the vocals, and plays bass and keys on Funk! How many people can say they’ve played with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Morris Day & The Time, Candy Dulfer and Prince? That’s how badass he is. He’s a huge part of the new project and I can’t wait to start the tour with him laying down some extra stank this fall!
The Hollywood 360: What made you decide to get your fans involved in helping fund the project via Indiegogo? I’ve seen independent artists with limited funds do that, but it’s not as common for established performers like yourself.
BC: It tied in perfectly with my decision to become a completely independent artist. I actually had finished most of the sessions for Another Long Night out out of my own pocket by the time I set up the page on Indiegogo. My initial goal was $20,000 and I was thrilled that we far exceeded it by getting $51,000. I decided to reinvest some of the money we raised into the recording itself, while allocating other funds to marketing and promotional costs. But the true reason I did it was to make my fans feel that they were a hands on part of the recording experience, like never before. I was able to offer exclusive items to them based on their contribution levels. Because none of this would be possible without them. I was able to create a unique experience for this couple from Denver, who came to one of the mastering sessions and got to listen to the final mixes, long before the album would be released. Those who contributed $25 received a full MP3 of the album on a weekly basis, just as those contributing $10 did, plus an autographed CD when it’s officially released. I also gave away concert tickets, passes for the upcoming Napa Valley Jazz Getaway.
The Hollywood 360 Along with the popular smooth jazz cruises, the Getaway has really become a “must do” on the calendar of many urban jazz fans.
BC: I’m really excited about the “Culbertson Pinot Noir,” which was created in partnership with Reata Wines and Jamieson Ranch Vineyards. I partnered with them because Jamieson hosts two full days of the festival on our property. The label has piano keys on it, but it’s not just something I loaned my name to. I got to work with their winemaker in creating my own blend. It’s got a gorgeous taste and pairs well with everything. The cool thing about this wine is that the grapes are from the nearby Sonoma Coast, which is very well known for growing Pinot grapes.
The Hollywood 360: I first asked you about starting the festival when I first heard rumors about it during a San Diego show some 6 or do years ago. He said that it actually took up a massive amount of his time.
BC: It’s called the Napa Valley Jazz Getaway. I came up with this concept of a mixture of concerts, wine tastings, dinners, Q&A sessions, this and that, there’s a wine reception, a silent auction for the Grammy Foundation, there’s so many things! There’s an art exhibit, there’s comedy— Sinbad is coming with us! There are lots of different artists, Eric Darius, Eric Marienthal, Oleta Adams, just tons of musicians. It’s really going to be a few days of a whole bunch of different things. I’m really excited about this. This is going to be the first year, and we’re going to make it an annual event and keep growing it. I’ve got a lot of friends up in Napa, and I love going up there. I met a lot of the winery owners and people up there, so it’s really exciting. It’s actually almost sold out already! A mark of a true icon in our contemporary smooth jazz world.
The Hollywood 360 Let’s begin with talking about Brian Culbertson’s Napa Valley Jazz Getaway presented by Lexus is a 5-day luxury wine and jazz festival set in the heart of California’s famous wine country. Previous performers at the Napa Valley Jazz Getaway are Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Boney James, Peter White, Mindi Abair, Spyro Gyra, Eric Darius, The Family Stone, Fred Wesley, Kenny Lattimore, Maysa, Chuck Loeb, Raul Midón, Eric Marienthal, Marqueal Jordan, DW3, Cecil Ramirez, DJ’s The World Famous Rick and Russ Show feat. In addition, you’ll try some of Napa’s most iconic wines and many hidden gems as well. So with that being said tell us about this getaway that you’ve created and how on earth did you create this?
BC: It’s something I came up with over six years now. I had an idea to marry the jazz festival with a wine festival. Jazz and wine has always been a good pairing. I didn’t know of any major festival that was in wine country. I had spent a lot of time in NapaValley and had met a lot of people up there and really fell in love with that lifestyle and people there.
I started the event in 2012, and my vision for it was to create a true lifestyle event, not just put on another festival. I love the idea of a true immersion into the world of Napa Valley, where people fly in and hang out for several days, enjoying great food, concerts and wine from some of California’s premier wineries. I used to play at the jazz series at Robert Mondavi Winery, and then they stopped it, so there was this void in the market up there. I started talking to some winery owners and the things eventually came together. I’m inspired by how it has grown in just a few years. The first event, we had about 450 guests and this year, we will host over 3,000! I am very hands on with every detail as I work with my team during the year. We look at it like it’s a big party. This is where my years of touring pay off because I’ve learned about production values and all the things it takes to give the fans an experience they won’t forget. I knew a lot of the locals, the owners of the wineries, people who worked at the wineries…I met people and kept in touch.
The Hollywood 360: You have your own wine label. How did that come to be?
BC: A couple of years ago one of the winery partners, Jamison Ranch, approached me and said, ‘We’re doing these big shows at our winery here, why don’t we collaborate on a Culbertson label.’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’ It’s been a lot of fun to go into the winery and work directly with their wine maker. I actually did the blending. We did all these trials and I tried different combinations. Each plot of land has its own characteristics so it’s kind of fun to try all the wines that haven’t been blended. I took notes and I would say this is more tannic, this is more acidic, this is fruitier. I started rating them. Then I figured out what percentage of each wine would blend best. I tweaked the percentage until I got what I thought was my favorite.
The Hollywood 360 (Mikey Adam Cohen): Can you talk about your newest release Funk?
BC: Funk! It’s a throwback to the stanky P-Funk records from back in the day combining the throbbing bass lines, greasy horn lines, sing-a-long choruses, and epic new releases that you’ll be jamming too for a lifetime. It’s a funk record simply called: Funk! I wanted to add that exclamation point because it’s really intense. In your face. I’m not trying to hold back and be nice with this. It’s almost nasty at times. It’s so much fun. It’s a throwback to P Funk meets Prince-esque. There are a lot of parts you can sing along with. The whole band is singing. I’m singing on the whole record which is something I’ve never really done. It’s that kind of record which everyone can sing. It’s about having fun; it’s about hanging out.
The Hollywood 360: You have amazing horn section. How do you work the horn section and the choreography for the songs?
BC: The new CD has horns on every single song. That’s just something which grew from The Earth, Wind & Fire sound. It was so entrenched in my brain and other groups of that era, like Chicago and Tower of Power. Everybody had a horn section back in the day and then they went out of style. This is something very important to me as a trombone player. The sound is so powerful. And it’s funky! I am going to try and incorporate more choreography on this funk tour we are coordinating now for this Fall.
The Hollywood 360: Let’s hear about your new tour and where you’ll be heading to perform.
BC: We will be doing between 50 to 60 shows. We will be touring until December. We will be performing almost six nights a week. We will be on a tour bus with a trailer dragging all our equipment behind. It’s an old school tour. No flights. We’re on the road.
The Hollywood 360: Where did this tour start?
BC: We are starting in Seattle then driving down the coast of Oregon, then to the Bay area and Sacramento, then to SoCal, Denver, Salt Lake, Vegas, Phoenix, then to the Mid- West for a while then to the East Coast, then down the East Coast.
The Hollywood 360: You will be in a bus all this time. What’s the atmosphere like touring the country in a bus?
BC: I like it because it’s more relaxing than flying. When you’re at the airport, you’re not sleeping that much because you got to get up early to go there and wait around. When you’re on tour bus, you finish the show, you hang out, you watch a movie or everybody is goofing around until you pass out because you’re just driving to the next city. Everybody has their own bunk, they’re twelve bunks, two lounges, front and back, kitchenette. I love it.
The Hollywood 360: Address the concept of Funk and how it plays a part in music today.
BC: Funk started back in the 60’s with people like James Brown. It definitely evolved over the years in the 70’s with bands like the Parliaments, Earth, Wind & Fire, then there were copycat bands on the coat tails. The 80’s totally changed because it was keyboards, synthesizers and synthesized drums and drum machines. I’m trying to go back to keep it real, alive, organic. That’s what I loved about the 70’s funk records. They were true bands playing in the studio together and a lot of my new record was done that way. I went into the studio with most of my band members. I did a little bit of piecing together depending on what song it was. For many of the songs, we were all in the studio. It’s a sound everyone can relate to no matter what age you’re at.
The Hollywood 360 (Sheryl Aronson): Talk about your style…you’re like a rock musician with your dress, your hair and how you jump around and dance on stage.
BC: My style has evolved over the years. If anyone had seen me early on, meaning 94,95,96…it was a very different BC show. I started off very shy on stage because I was more of a studio guy. In the studio, I had all the control. I thought I could make it sound perfect. This was my young self-talking. Over the years I grew to love the stage, dare I say, even more than the studio nowadays. As songs of mine got played more on the radio, people knew my name more, I got more comfortable…I came out of my shell.
My hair is an interesting story. I ended up going to a hairdresser one day 10 years ago. I went in and she looked at my hair and she asked me what do you do. All I said was, I’m a musician and didn’t say what kind of music. I’m a musician and give me a new look. She said, OK…I got something for you. It wasn’t quite this crazy in the beginning…it started out on the way there. It was as spikey. It kind of got more wild. Two or three years later, she found out I was a jazz musician and thought if it was jazz, it had to be all button up and serious. No, quite the opposite.
The Hollywood 360: I noticed during a critique I was writing about your latest tour for Good Times Magazine you jump around quite a bit and it a point to point at and showcase at the musicians on tour with you & really feature them! Do you think of yourself as someone that gets along with most, because you’re in close quarters for this Funk Bus Tour, 10 weeks at least…? Let’s hear about the musicians in your band.
BC: The band is about the comradery. We are friends on and off the stage. When you’re in a band, it’s not just about that hour on the stage. When young musicians ask me what do you have to do to be successful, the other half is your hang. With that said…I am about showcasing everyone. I want everyone to shine. At the end of the day people will say that Brian Culbertson show was awesome. That’s because the band really shined. “You become like family. You really have each other’s back and grow to love each other. The song is about hanging out with the fellas and going with the flow of the night. With me I have my regular members Marqueal Jordan (vocals, sax), Tyrone Chase (guitar), Eddie Miller (keyboards, organ, vocals), Rodney Jones, Jr. (bass, guitar, vocals), Chris Miskel (drums), Michael Stever (trumpet, horn arrangements) and I added Chance Howard (keyboardist, bassist, vocalist. Sometimes I’ll call Chris my drummer or other band members and see what he’s doing. We’ll go hang out and probably end up at a jam session and go with the vibe.
The Hollywood 360: Talk about your trombone playing and playing the piano. They are two totally different instruments.
BC: I started off playing the piano. At eight, I started playing the drums with a whole drum set, so I studied with this guy who had me playing along with Earth, Wind & Fire records. That got me going with playing the groove. The following year, I wanted to join the fifth grade band. No piano in fifth grade band and the drum parts were really simple. I said to myself that I am already playing along with EWF so let me check out other instruments. When I picked up the trombone I could play it naturally. I did all the bands. I went to DePaul University in Chicago and played in all the jazz bands. I played the euphonia in the concert band. I studied traditional arranging and strings and orchestral music.
The Hollywood 360: Your style is very strong and solid on the keyboards. Please talk about your musical style.
BC: I am trying to be very melodic with it because I’m not a singer, a saxophone sings the tone sings through a band easier than a piano. As a piano player I am trying to anchor the music with my instrument. I’m trying to be precise. I am focused on timing and rhythm.
The Hollywood 360: You have played the Jazz West Festival many years, what do you enjoy about performing here?
BC: Talk about hot. It’s always hot here. People love it though. These are true fans that come out here. It’s been going on for twenty years. It’s an institution going on now. It’s been great to be a part of it for many years.
I love all the people at Omega events. They put on an incredible event. Very well run and organized.
BC: Hey everyone! What a crazy ride this Funk tour has been! One of the interesting things about all this was that I was so naïve about everything. I wasn’t trying to write anything commercial, I just wrote tunes I thought were interesting to listen to. And when I listen to them now, I think these were some cool chords you don’t hear much in today’s music. Every song is creative and has twists and turns that I wrote because nobody was telling me I couldn’t. That’s been one of the things I have liked most about my career since, that I don’t stay in any single box too long and don’t write the same types of songs over and over. We’ve been in 4 different states and had 1 blown tire. It’s always an adventure on the road, but we’re having a blast. Haha!!
Oh yes Mikey said I had BIG NEWS & I do! The first week of sales are in and I’m proud to say that Funk! is #1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart! Thank you all so much for such amazing support of this new project. The Funk! album and tour reviews are coming in and everyone is on the funk train! I got to spend some time with my friends at KBLX in The Bay Area chatting with James Sterling talking about both. Check it out here! Did you pre-order a bobblehead? They are finally here and we’ll be shipping them out next week! Thanks again for your continued support of The Funk! Without you, none of this would have been possible. Time flies by when you’re Funky as I will soon be hosting his 2017 Annual Napa Valley Jazz Getaway with an exciting array of contemporary smooth jazz and rock and r and b superstars.
Message to funk received from the Mothership: Brian Culbertson has a new release and tour to match simply entitled ”Funk!” Founder. This is the funkiest release Brian has ever recorded hence the title…
The Funk Albums New Songs:
“Been Around the World”
“Take It Up”
“Let’s Take a Ride”
“We Got What You Want”
“Damn, I’m Hungry” (interlude)
“Got To Give It Up”
“Play That Funky Music”
“Spend A Little Time”
“To Be Continued…”
So, tune into my Facebook page HERE: https://www.facebook.com/BrianCulbertsonOfficial/?fref=ts and I’ll see you on the LIVE video chat! Please visit www.NapaValleyJazzGetaway.me and www.BrianCulbertson. me.
Brian Culbertson:” Hey everyone!
We just got back to The States from an incredible week in Asia. So many great fans – really looking forward to heading back to Korea and China next year. Only a couple more shows coming up before the Funk! Tour begins!
While you’re all getting ready for the long holiday weekend I’m hard at work giving you “Funk! Friday.”
This week I want to highlight a couple of really cool things. If you want a taste of Funk! head to my Soundcloud. You can hear “Been around the World” in addition to snippets of other songs. I’ll put up more each week. Go check it out and tell me what you think!
Make sure you join me on Facebook every Funk Friday too! I’ll be coming to you live to answer questions, preview music, and have some fun.
Photo Credit: Mikey Adam Cohen