Boney James and Brian Culbertson

Boney James and Brian Culbertson
Boney James Bio

After four gold albums, three Grammy nominations and sales totaling more than 3 million records, chart-topping saxophonist Boney James embodies the phrase “horn of plenty.”

“I’m always thinking about making music,” he says. “It’s still my consuming passion.”

That passion reverberates throughout James’ latest project, The Beat. The April 9 release marks his 14th album as well as his return to former label Concord Records. It’s a penetrating fusion of R&B, jazz and Latin rhythms given voice by James’ emotive saxophone and such guests as trumpet hitman Rick Braun, R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn and spoken word phenom The Floacist.

“There was no sense that this had to be a certain thing,” recalls James, who was between labels when he began recording the album. “I was recording for fun, experimenting with this hybrid R&B and Latin sound, two genres I love. So my playing on this album has a different energy. I think it’s one of the best records I’ve ever done.”

Sergio Mendes’ “Batucada (The Beat)” provided the initial inspiration for the genre mash-up. Re-imagining the Brazilian tune with a percolating funk backbeat, James reunites with longtime colleague Braun—a combustible teaming he describes as possessing a “certain edge that creates a really cool vibe.”

That natural, organic vibe courses throughout the rest of the 10-track album produced by James, who also wrote/co-wrote eight songs. Those tunes include lead single “Maker of Love,” a sexy flamethrower sparked by the soulful Raheem DeVaughn. A longtime fan of the R&B singer, James says their collaboration came to fruition after they began following each other on Twitter. “I sent him the track, and he came back with an incredible lyric and finished vocal that he’d done in one night,” recalls James.

Equally as mesmerizing is the seductive “The Midas (This Is Why)” featuring U.K. poet/musician The Floacist, best known as one-half of the Grammy-winning neo-soul duo Floetry. “I just wanted a spoken word thing,” says James of The Floacist’s laid-back flow. “Between its R&B groove, the shekere and conga percussion plus her Euro coffeehouse feel, the track adds to the album’s world music flavor.”

James opens the album with an illuminating take on Stevie Wonder’s R&B/Latin mid-tempo classic “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” From there, The Beat saunters into the easygoing groove of “Sunset Boulevard” then segues into the sophisticated bossa nova samba of “Mari’s Song.” After kicking into high energy on the percussion-driven “Powerhouse,” the versatile musician downshifts effortlessly into first gear on the subtly elegant “Acalento (Lullaby).” Notes James, “I’m just trying to stretch a little here. There’s no agenda. It’s just music that came out of me.”

The music has been flowing ever since he took up the clarinet at the age of eight. Switching to the saxophone, he began playing in dance bands at 14. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts and raised in New Rochelle, NY, James counts Wonder, legendary musician/songwriter/producer Quincy Jones, Earth, Wind & Fire and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. as major influences. James later honed his R&B chops while touring and doing session work for such marquee names as the Isley Brothers, Randy Crawford and Ray Parker Jr.

Conversant on the tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, James debuted as a solo artist in 1992 with Trust. Cited as virtually creating the urban jazz genre—melding contemporary jazz with hip-hop sensibilities—the crossover virtuoso has racked up nine No. 1 albums on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart and two top 10 entries on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums tally. A three-time Grammy nominee and an NAACP Image Award nominee, James has earned several other honors, including four RIAA-certified gold albums and a Soul Train Award for Best Jazz Album.

During the course of his 21-year career, James has built a solid reputation as a compelling live performer who averages between 50-80 gigs a year. “Let’s make something perfectly clear: James is not a smooth jazz player,” declares a Boston Globe review. “His music is muscular and gritty … James swaggers across the stage like a blacktop hero draining treys on an overmatched opponent.”

However, between his two most recent albums—2009’s Send One Your Love (Concord) and 2011’s Contact (Verve)—James was wondering if he’d ever play the sax again. He was rear-ended by a drunk driver on a Los Angeles highway. His car totaled, James suffered a fractured jaw and lost two teeth as well as the ability to play for two months.

That period is now thankfully a dim memory as James returns to Concord, ready to step up his game with The Beat. “The music I’m making comes with different elements that need to be experienced, not pre-judged or categorized,” he says. “I just want to be fresh, not derivative.”

Brian Culbertson Bio

Rare is the opportunity for an artist to revisit their first work – handicapped by limitations beyond their control – reshaping it into the full vision of what they always had in mind. Celebrating his 20th anniversary as a recording artist, multi-award winner Brian Culbertson is realizing that dream by making his 14th CD an all-star re-imagination of his very first 11-song project, Long Night Out. The new title: Another Long Night Out, featuring special guests Lee Ritenour, Steve Lukather, Chuck Loeb, Candy Dulfer, Larry Dunn, Nathan East, Jonathan Butler, Russ Freeman, Rick Braun, Ray Parker Jr., Paul Jackson Jr., Eric Marienthal, David Benoit, Jeff Kashiwa, Michael “Patches” Stewart, the Yellowjackets’ rhythm section of Jimmy Haslip, Will Kennedy and (in among his last sessions) Ricky Lawson.

Much has changed since Brian’s maiden musical venture of February1994. The Illinois-native’s skills as an all-around musician (composer, arranger, producer, multi-instrumentalist, performer, band leader and recording company entrepreneur) have elevated ten-fold. His Rolodex of willing and ready top-tier peers has grown by leaps and bounds. He has gained the creative independence to embark on such an endeavor following 13 #1 hits as an artist and 13 more as a producer and/or composer then funnel all of that experience and knowledge into his own BCM Entertainment company. All this makes Another Long Night Out a personal and professional milestone of tremendous achievement.

“With this being my 20th anniversary, it was the perfect moment to approach this project I have been planning for some time now,” Culbertson states. “After all the recent R&B vocal collaborations and the Bringing Back The Funk project, it felt like the right time to return to the instrumental contemporary jazz setting that my fans have loved by me from the very beginning.”

The original Long Night Out CD remains one of the most impressive 90s debuts in contemporary instrumental music, especially considering it was conceived and created in an apartment above a costume shop by a college student, his sound engineering student roommate and just a couple of local musicians. Within it you could hear a ripe musical imagination blossoming and bringing his works to life via the tools within reach: a few Roland keyboards, an early computer sequencer and a drum machine. Working under the watchful eyes of musician Bud Harner (the man who brought him to his first record label, Mesa/Bluemoon), ambitious 20-year-old Brian recorded a broadly varied musical sound-scape tempered by the dictates of the then-burgeoning “smooth jazz” broadcast universe and Gavin Report/R&R magazine chart aspirations. A trombone player at heart, the young man didn’t even define himself as a piano player then. As a song writer, arranger and producer, he figured he was headed into a career of film music and other behind the scenes endeavors. Little did he know…

20 years and 13 CDs later, Brian Culbertson revels in the platinum-bound opportunity of re-recording his first music with the very musicians that were inspiring him back then. Retaining the entire sequence of the original CD, Another Long Night Out opens with “City Lights” and the very first sound you hear is Brian manning a Mason & Hamlin acoustic grand piano. “That intro melody almost created my signature sound,” Brian marvels. “It also foreshadowed all of the potential songs to come from me – both on this album and throughout my career thus far.” Stepping into the spotlight as his first of many special guests is Lee “Captain Fingers” Ritenour who blew Brian away. “Lee put his unmistakable touch on ‘City Lights’ without ever hearing the original. I sent him a chart but he phrased it in his own way which is exactly what I wanted from all of my guests.”

The lead single for Another Long Night Out is “Fullerton Ave.” anchored by the fatback wallop of Yellowjackets drummer Will Kennedy who Brian was striving to emulate in many of the rhythm tracks the first time around. What a difference real wood to skins make. When Long Night Out was released in 1994, all-powerful smooth jazz radio was favoring lighter, mellower grooves so Brian’s first singles were, fittingly, “City Lights” and “Alone With You.” Now in 2014, Brian boldly rolls out with a dynamic and fiercely funky number, not surprisingly suggested by faithful friend, Bud. This song features both the scorched earth pyrotechnics and the ethereal 3D sounds of wonder guitarist Chuck Loeb from Fourplay. Brian is promoting the launch of this CD with a video largely sourced from footage on his website that reveals raw passion emanating from every player on the session – cracklin’ live energy in a studio setting!

Live strings (the first of four such arrangements from the ubiquitous David Benoit) add sonic luster to the ambient Indian exploration “Beyond the Frontier” while Eric Marienthal on soprano sax and Rick Braun on flugelhorn really get to sink their chops into the futuristic fusion workout “Heroes of the Dawn.” This leads into another grand highlight in the majestic “Beautiful Liar” on which Brian pays homage to legendary pop-rock band Chicago and the golden 80s era it enjoyed under producer/arranger David Foster. Authenticating this tribute is Toto guitarist Steve Lukather who Foster used to smuggle in on Chicago’s power ballad sessions such as “You’re the Inspiration.” Much like Chicago’s “Love Me Tomorrow,” Brian provided a climactic fade out of the rhythm section leaving the strings to finish the piece naked within a minor chord crescendo. The rhythm section here is anchored by legendary bassist, Nathan East, and ballad drummer supreme, Ricky Lawson, the man whose “one beat solo” on Foster’s production of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” remains one of the most dramatic modulation shifters of all-time. Sadly, this was among Lawson’s final recordings before passing suddenly from complications related to an aneurysm. Brian honored Lawson at his Celebration of Life by respectfully playing “Beautiful Liar” before his family, friends and loved ones.

“Double Exposure” was originally inspired by the work of guitarist/producer Russ Freeman and his band The Rippingtons that was wildly popular in the 80s and 90s. It was a thrill for Brian to have Freeman and band sax man Jeff Kashiwa guest on this spry skippin’ Rippington’s salute. Meanwhile, “Twilight” is lit by Marienthal’s playful soprano sax matching Culbertson’s ivory melodies, made more poignant this time around on acoustic grand piano. This is followed by the soulful hypnotic bounce “Horizon” featuring Michael “Patches” Stewart on muted trumpet and the crunchy, gritty wah-wah guitar effects of Ray Parker Jr. Next up is the alternately tender and enraptured clear-eyed nostalgia of “Alone With You,” warmer than its predecessor simply by Brian moving the melody deeper into the mid-range of the acoustic piano.

Which brings us to the title track of the original CD, “Long Night Out,” a piece that Brian composed while still in high school, recording the sax and drums nearly three years before his debut CD was released. It was one of three demos (along with “City Lights” and “Changing Tides”) that landed the DePaul University student his initial six-album record deal. Under the gun to deliver the album by Thanksgiving to make the February release date, Brian endured a long succession of sleepless nights. “From mid-August to mid-November,” Brian recalls, “my roommate Scott Steiner (a recording tech major) and I pulled a lot of all-nighters, especially towards the end when we mixed all eleven songs in five days! That’s how I came up with the album title.”

The new and improved 2014 version is the CD’s largest scale production, boasting over 200 individual tracks including layered Latin and African percussion from Lenny Castro and Brian Kilgore, orchestral brass and strings, a full horn section, plus a powerful alto sax lead by sassy Dutch import Candy Dulfer. “I was still in high school when Candy came out hard in 1989 with her first single, ‘Lily Was Here,’” Brian recalls. “I was way into Candy – had all of her records. She brought a really cool sound to the remake of ‘Long Night Out.’ She has nice subtle moments then shifts into high gear when needed. There is so much going on in this track with all the sonic pallets, the marimbas by Kilgore and kalimba played by Larry Dunn of the classic 70s incarnation of Earth Wind & Fire. And I spent a lot of time on the surprise ending…really getting it right this time.”

The time machine ride that is Another Long Night Out comes to a serene yet reverent close with the dreamy and etheric “Changing Tides,” the only song to feature vocals of any kind, these being wordless vocalese from South African superstar Jonathan Butler. It also includes the fourth and final string arrangement by David Benoit. “David and I have toured together but never worked together on an album,’ Brian explains. “The arrangements were based on my original arrangements, but he took them and embellished upon them. You can’t beat the emotional value of real strings. We ended the song in a way that allows for introspection and reflection…”

The powerful poignancy of Another Long Night Out stretches exponentially considering that upon the release of Long Night Out in 1994, an irresistible opera student named Michelle soon after entered his life. She has since worn many hats in Brian’s life as his wife, business partner and (for the first time here) co-producer of his piano tracks on Another Long Night Out. How many musicians can say that in reference to their significant other?

“Long Night Out is the only album I ever made without Michelle’s input because we didn’t meet until a few weeks after it was released,” Brian shares. “She was friends with the bass player in DePaul’s Jazz Ensemble who was also the original bassist in my band. After a showcase that I performed on campus before going on my first tour, he introduced us. A month later, one of our roommates moved out and we needed help paying rent. Serendipitously…Michelle moved in!”

“It was so fitting to have Michelle help produce my piano tracks,” Brian continues. “She’s been living with that original CD since the beginning. She also listens to a lot of interesting jazz from around the world – always seeking out new music to play for me – pushing me to push the envelope to play more interesting improvisations. Between takes, she would make suggestions or give me something to listen to for inspiration. Michelle being a great musician is a huge help.”

Brian is also excited about the plethora of new ways to independently produce and promote one’s musical wares in 2014. He partially funded the completion and promotion of Another Long Night Out using Indiegogo, giving his fans many unique ways to play a part in the record-making experience from the inside. He is also all over the Internet with his website, a video blog series on YouTube, and fan interaction on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

On stage, Culbertson remains an exuberant performer – a fan favorite concert and festival headliner. Off stage, Culbertson is also a visionary lifestyle curator who founded and serves as Creative Director for the Napa Valley Jazz Getaway, a star-studded jazz and wine festival that will take place for the third time June 11-15, 2014. “I started the event in 2012,” he states. “My vision was to create a true lifestyle event. I love the idea of a total immersion into the world of Napa Valley where people fly in and hang out for several days, enjoying great concerts, food and wine. The first event we had about 450 guests. This year, we will host over 3,000!” Culbertson also just introduced his own wine brand, Culbertson Pinot Noir, which he developed in partnership with Reata Wines and Jamieson Ranch Vineyards, who play host to two of the outdoor concerts at this year’s Jazz Getaway. Brian describes his creation as “a smooth, light and vibrant red that is unique and personal. To create the full flavor and complexity, I blended different percentages of pinot noir grapes grown in six distinctly different vineyards, taking notes until I got it just right. It’s got a gorgeous taste that pairs well with many different foods.”

Flush with boundless creativity and liberty following his fond look back to his very first music – now revamped to present day perfection – Brian beams, “I am truly pleased with the outcome. Hearing everyone breathe new life into these songs that I’ve been listening to over the past 20 years has been the absolute best thing about making this album. What’s really great is that back in the 90s, I wasn’t trying to write ‘commercial.’ I just wrote songs I thought were interesting to listen to. Every track has twists and turns I was able to write because nobody was telling me I couldn’t.”

~ A. Scott Galloway