Many instrumentalists have made a name for themselves over the years –from Miles Davis and Ronny Jordan to Marcus Johnson and Herbie Hancock, and Brian Culbertson adds his name to the list effortlessly as he prepares for the release of his 13th album, DREAMS. Gifted in his ability to play numerous instruments, from piano and drums to bass, he showcases his talent on this new album that he says has a “dreamy and ethereal” vibe.
If only by association, Brian Culbertson is one of the success stories of a music industry that is still trying to regain footing in an increasingly unstable economic market. With a new jazz festival of his own underway in less than a month on the West Coast and a music tour that is still going strong, Culbertson’s list of collaborations reads like a wish list of talent that never wanes in its celebrity. Legendary acts like Maceo Parker, Larry Graham, Patti Austin, Chuck Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White have collaborated with Culbertson, as have contemporary artists Kenny Lattimore, Avant, Vivian Green, Ledisi, Brian McKnight, and Faith Evans. Being in the industry for over 18 years and counting, Brian Culbertson continues to make new music, improving upon a sound that he says is always evolving.
SoulTrain.com: Brian, I have to admit, one of the things I enjoyed about your last album XII , in addition to the R & B song with Avant, “Sky Wide Open” is your collaboration with Chuck Brown, being that I am a native of DC. Tell us what led to you collaborating with Chuck Brown and infusing go-go in your sound?
Brian Culbertson: (laughs) First time I had ever used it in my music, it felt so right. Loved it when I heard it. I had to work with Chuck. I told Chuck that I played in a funk band in college and we had always done “Bustin’ Loose,” and I remember when I attended my first Chuck Brown show and was in the audience dancing my butt off for two hours. In the studio with Chuck it was like a party with ten people in the studio. People kept coming–Faith Evans and then Sinbad, who’s a friend of mine, and then Ray Parker, Jr. I’m telling you, it was something else!
SoulTrain.com: That sounds amazing! You have a new project called DREAMS, with appearances from artists like Vivian Greene, Stokley Williams from Mint Condition, and some other great artists. Tell us a little about this new project and why folks should go out and buy it.
Brian Culbertson: This is about the slow jams and the romantic side–consistent from top to bottom. It takes you to that mood and kind of stays there. I like doing this kind of conceptual album. Honestly, it started a year ago when I started writing these songs. I hadn’t planned on working on a record, but, last July I was waking up having these really vivid dreams inspiring me to write music. I usually go in the studio and start improvising with purpose but this record totally no purpose. I was inspired to make music based on these emotions that were left over from the dreams. Honestly, they instantly had these dreamy, ethereal, nighttime vibes to them, every song. And then, I added the vocal songs a little bit later after I had the concept down.
SoulTrain.com: Did you know who you wanted to sing the songs when you wrote them?
Brian Culbertson: I had just started writing the tracks and most times I don’t have specific people in mind, but then I’ll bounce ideas off of people and names start coming up. Vivian Green and Stokley were named. I had never met either of them. It is always a little bit of a leap of faith. It was kind of exciting because you don’t know what you’ll come up with. I learn by working with different people and I love collaborating.
SoulTrain.com: You seem to really revel in your life as an artistic person and have been lucky to have some really great experiences. What has been your highlight so far on your journey?
Brian Culbertson: I’m in the best situation because I literally can be creative and make music based on what I’m feeling. I’m really in a lucky position. A lot of artists are told what they have to do. I can call my own shots and make my own thing and been able to almost find my own distinct sound.
SoulTrain.com: What have you learned about yourself as you find this distinct sound of yours?
Brian Culbertson: I think I’m always trying to grow and evolve and change. I think that’s what life is about. I don’t think I could make the same records over and over again. I always want to push myself and try this and that and yet it still sounds like my record. I’m not trying to pull a left hand turn and have people ask, “What the hell happened to Brian?” Ultimately this will be my 13th record and I have to give it to people.
SoulTrain.com: Is there a formula for your longevity?
Brian Culbertson: I know for me that it has just been a long slow climb and that works for me . It took a long time to get things going. I’ve slowly figured things out and I feel like I’m hitting my full stride now. Been doing this since 1994.
SoulTrain.com: How do you balance a busy tour schedule with being in the studio and crafting new albums? Are you on the road writing your songs as you tour?
Brian Culbertson: No, I have to do that in my own studio. So I really have to focus and make that happen. When I’m on tour, I’m focused fully on the tour and can’t write. I’m not one of those people who can tour and write. And I really have to focus. Most of the songs I will write quickly in a couple of hours when I’m in my studio. What takes times is producing the tracks, recording the real piano–’ll demo with a keyboard piano and go back with a real acoustic. Then it’s the mixing part that I do as well.
SoulTrain.com: That sounds like a lot. As we close out the interview, tell me about your favorite episode of Soul Train.
Brian Culbertson: When that show was on, for me, being able to watch that show as a young white kid in the middle of Illinois, I got exposed to a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t hear from friends around school. I was hearing a bunch of stuff that I wasn’t going to hear in my normal daily life. I remember the vibe, the opening sequence—I’ve always been into the R&B sound and the underlying funk. Grew up listening to Earth, Wind, & Fire and other bands like Tower of Power which had a similar vibe but their own take. Those two bands were massive influences on me.
Soul Train: You grew up listening to some classics! With your interest being mired in a sound that is so legendary, let’s fast forward to the music scene today. Who is staying true to the art form of music in your opinion?
Brian Culbertson: Since I am really in control of my artistic vision, it’s hard to know what’s true out there and what’s manufactured. You look at the 70s: Everyone was an artist, everyone had their own sound and was producing their own songs and music. Today, you don’t know who believes in what they’re singing and who’s not. You ask why is Adele making it so big? Because she is writing her own music and she believes it. I know in the jazz world people are making songs at home trying to change their style to get a song on the radio. But, then you have Esperanza Spalding–that’s the ultimate in artistic integrity. How easy it would be for her to go pop and make a billion dollars? She’s staying true to making her own music and her sound and playing the upright bass. I never tried to get a song on the radio and I always wanted to make music for myself first of all. If you don’t love it for yourself first of all, you have a problem. Most songs nowadays are contrived and written by song writers and no truth to it.
SoulTrain.com: Thank you for your honesty. So, here we are at the end of the interview. Is there anything that you would like to add that I didn’t ask?
Brian Culbertson: One thing I’m trying to mention to everybody is that I’m starting my own jazz festival—The Napa Valley Jazz Getwaway. My idea is to make a whole several day experience, not just a typical jazz festival but everyone is collaborating with everyone to get truly unique performances that you can’t see anywhere else. Oleta Adams, Kenny Lattimore, and other artists–we literally are going to be playing together and dueting and creating this unique experience. Besides the concerts we are doing Q&A, wine tasting, art gallery, and more. Learn more at the napavalleyjazzgetaway.com. We are already planning our second year and making it bigger, since we sold out in February in one week for this year’s. I think people really appreciate the idea behind it, and I think they like nice stuff and unique experiences.
-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a writer based in Maryland. Visit her on KhadijahOnline.com.