A Conversation with Brian Culbertson – HuffPost 5.29.13

Mike Ragogna: Hi, Brian. Can you go into what this Napa Valley Jazz Getaway that you’re associated with is going to be like?

Brian Culbertson: Yes. This June is going to be our second annual wine and jazz festival. It’s a five-day event based around many different concerts plus wine tastings, dinners, hang-outs, golf, all kinds of different things going on. So it’s not a typical jazz festival where people come and sit outside. This is way more of an intimate setting where people are really, really getting to hang out with the artists over five days. There’s just lots of different things. It’s a really unique experience doing the whole lifestyle thing. People love putting food and wine and music together in these events, so that’s what it’s all about.

MR: I was going to ask, with all those events is there going to be any time for the music?

BC: Oh, there’s plenty of music, let me tell you. During the day, we have a big outdoor welcome party with tons of our artists. It’s a big jam session. And a celebrity chef’s going to be out there, Cindy Pawlcyn, who has tons of restaurants in the area, so she’ll be cooking all day with her whole staff there. We have our own signature wine that’s going to be available everywhere, we did it with our winery partner Miner Family, and there’s tons of other winery partners as well. So if you come to the whole event, you get an access card and it gets you two-for-one tastings with our partners and a bunch of discounts at other places around the valley. You really get the time to take advantage of the whole area around there, which is so beautiful.

MR: I’m looking at the artist roster and I’m what song you’re going to be performing with Sinbad.

BC: Well, you know what? Sinbad was on one of my records.

MR: [laughs] There you go, very nice.

BC: Oh yes, I put a record out about two and a half years ago called Twelve and he was featured on the first track along with Chuck Brown, Faith Evans and Ray Parker, Jr., so that was a lot of fun. He’ll be up there doing that, and of course, he’s going to be up there doing his stand-up as well, but he plays percussion and guitar so he likes to sit in and jam. It’s awesome.

MR: And Ray Parker, Jr. is one of the festival artists.

BC: That’s right. Yeah, I’ve known Ray for many years now. He’s been playing on all my records–amazing rhythm guitarist. A lot of people don’t even know that. That’s how he really got his start in the business back in Motown in Detroit where he grew up. He comes over and just loves playing guitar, so I put him all over my records. We’re going to be doing a bunch of tunes together and, of course, he’s going to be singing his hits as well, so that’s going to be a lot of fun.

MR: Is there any plan for the big, giant group all-star festival jam?

BC: Yeah, definitely, both Saturday and Sunday nights. The encores are going to be crazy, the openers are going to be crazy, so lots of all-star jamming and photo ops for the fans.

MR: I also wanted to ask about your last album, Dreams. Has it been all you ever dreamed it would be?

BC: Well, you know, it really is a conceptual album and an album that was meant to just be a consistent sounding record from start to finish, meaning that when you put it on, you get into a certain mood and you stay there. I like those kinds of records because if you’re in the mood for it, that’s exactly what you need. So not a lot of ups and downs; it’s going to put you in this mellow, chill, late-night, romantic vibe and you’re good to go for about an hour. You know what I mean?

MR: Yeah, it’s not only a creative statement, but it’s also about both the hanky AND the panky.

BC: Exactly.

MR: [laughs] What else is going on in the world of Brian Culbertson?

BC: You know, I’m about to start working on a new record this summer, and I’m putting the finishing touches on the concept of that, so we’ll talk about that next time. Also, this Fall, I’m going to be hosting a cruise–the Smooth Jazz Cruise West Coast Edition. I’m hosting it along with co-host Boney James. It also features David Sandborn, Marcus Miller, Tower Of Power and a million other artists. That’s going out of San Diego in October, and we’re really excited about that. In the mean time, I’m just going to be around touring and that’s kind of what we do, so a lot’s going on.

MR: Nice. I almost made it to the east coast version.

BC: Ah. Maybe someday. It’s so much fun because it’s seven days and all the artists are on the boat, so everyone’s just literally hanging out. I love just walking around and sitting down and having lunch with random people. That, to me, is such a cool experience and another thing that you don’t get with a normal jazz festival.

MR: Yeah. So the sidebar elephant in the room here is that your keyboard playing is pretty phenomenal.

BC: Oh, well, thanks.

MR: I think people sometimes take that for granted because there doesn’t seem to be any kind of standard for like, “Hey, that’s really a good musician,” because everybody is elevated to, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard,” or “…he’s the most awesome musician ever!” It seems like sometimes, the real powerhouses get lost in the critical shuffle based on everything being at eleven all the time.

BC: Right, the hype.

MR: The hype. So you just played trombone on one of David Koz’s tracks, what was that like?

BC: You know, I love recording trombone. That’s obviously my second instrument, but I’ve got to be honest with you, it was my main instrument all throughout high school and college. I was really known as a trombone player. When I released my first record in ’94–I can’t believe it’s been that long–it was all piano, and everyone that I knew was like, “Oh my God, who’s that? I thought you were a trombone player! What the hell happened?” I was a closet piano player. So my recording and playing trombone these days is really a lot of fun. I don’t know if you’ve heard that track, but I love blowing the horn on records and I think I kind of have a unique style on the trombone as well because I’m also a piano player, so I have a different take on it, I guess, than other mainly trombone players.

MR: Brian, let me ask the question as your friends would ask it: “How the hell did that happen?”

BC: I actually started on piano lessons, classical lessons, but then, when I was in fifth grade, I wanted to join the band and in the band, there’s no piano. So, at that point, I was also playing the drum set, but in the fifth grade band, the drum parts were like a snare drum. Really boring. I was like, “I don’t want to do that either, I want to play a wind instrument.” My dad was a band director at the high school and he actually brought home all the wind instruments and made me try them all. For some reason, I could naturally play the trombone, like instantly. He was like, “Well, that’s for you.” I said, “Okay, nice.” I got so excited, I was playing for like three hours that first day and my lips swelled up. We had to get the ice pack out. It was great.

MR: All right, as always, even though I’ve interviewed you five, six, seven times, what is your advice for new artists?

BC: Well, I think if you’re trying to get into this genre–I think there’s still a lot of new artists working on that–what I tell a lot of them is the best way to really get known these days is to start touring with a well-known artist, and then, hopefully, you can be featured during their set. Then you can start being known. Obviously, that’s once you get to a certain level, but that’s definitely helped out a lot of younger artists starting out. Besides that, you’ve just got to find your own talent so that you’re unique and stand out. There are too many people that are copying artists that they like and that’s not really going to do anything because nobody’s going to know it’s them.

MR: Considering how records are sounding right now, I wonder where pop is headed.

BC: What’s interesting is if you really look at records that are connecting with people, those are the records that are different and taking chances. Adele or Gotye. Those sound different and unique and again, that goes to what I was saying about you’ve got to have a unique sound, otherwise, you’re not going to stand out.

MR: Yeah.

BC: Otherwise you’re just going to be in the middle, and you might have some sort of career, but definitely not one that’s going to have any longevity to it.

MR: Is there any advice you would give to a certain Brian Culbertson way back when you were starting?

BC: Oh wow. That’s a good question. [laughs] No one’s ever asked me that before. “What advice would I give myself twenty years ago?” You know, I wish I would have known more about the actual music business. When you first start out as a kid, all it’s about is making music and it’s all you want to do and you sort of forget that it’s a business and you need to know to protect yourself and to make things happen. Nobody really told me that, and a lot of people don’t say that you sort of learn the hard way over the years. I think I wish I would’ve known more of that, but hey, we all learn somehow. And I do a lot of sit-ins on classes, whether it be high school students or college students, and talk about those kinds of aspects, and a lot of people just don’t think about it yet at an early age. I don’t think it’s ever too early if you know you want to go into the music industry to start learning about that stuff. “What is publishing? What is ASCAP?” You know what I mean?

MR: Yeah, some basic class like that. Do you like mentoring?

BC: I really do. I love mentoring. I had great mentors growing up and it feels great and the kids these days are so into it and really, really smart. When you have bunches of kids like that, it’s really satisfying and fun for everybody. I’ve definitely been involved with music education a lot and we’re even holding a silent auction for the Grammy foundation during our Napa weekend. Last year, we raised over thirty thousand and hopefully, this year, we’re going to do a whole lot more than that because our crowd is a lot bigger this year. I’m definitely committed to music education and keep raising awareness for that.

MR: Nice. And you tied it into Napa, good job, sir! Colby, I hope to see you in September.

BC: That’d be fantastic. Hope you can make it. Thanks for the call.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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