Performing Friday June 21, 2013
Three of the main cats whose musical passion and groove intensity defines the truest heart and soul of today’s contemporary jazz, Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown share a collective love for the old school. Each infuses his solo projects with a mix of classic R&B and soul-jazz influences, none greater than those classic late 60’s-early 70’s CTI recordings featuring legends like George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Bob James and Ron Carter re-interpreting contemporary pop songs in a fresh, free-wheeling way.
Matt Pierson, Executive VP of Warner Bros. Jazz, conceived the Braun-Whalum-Brown group BWB as an updated twist on that spirited ensemble vibe, with the trio of instrumental superstars showing up to the party and jamming live in the studio.
As longtime standard bearers of the smooth jazz sound, Braun, Whalum and Brown have all mixed and matched with each other before. Braun appears on “Night Drive” on Brown’s new Just Chillin’ album. Braun and Whalum jammed together at the Warner Jazz all-star 1999 concert at Montreux that was recorded for the double Casino Lights ’99 disc, and also joined forces on one of the famed annual Guitars & Saxes tours in the late 90’s. Pierson, the producer of the project who oversaw the choice of material, the arrangements and helmed the four days of live sessions and week of overdubbing, fancied the idea of taking these three talents and finding ways to exhibit their deeper, jazz-steeped artistry apart from the usual commercial considerations of their solo projects.
A huge fan of their compelling concert performances, he gathered the trio together with an all-star rhythm section: Christian McBride on bass, Gregory Hutchinson on drums whose mix of jazz and R&B chops and experience would spark the greatest challenge to them and trigger that same live energy. Pierson also brought famed keyboardist Ricky Peterson’s retro jazz-soul expertise into the fold. Peterson is credited as Associate Producer.
“There’s a particular process involved in making a smooth jazz record and it’s something of a controlled setting,” says Pierson. “Live, however, each of these guys really transcends those trappings and has a blast interacting with their rhythm section. They’re more aggressive, they solo more. Individually, they’re the best. As a guitarist, Norman is the George Benson and Wes Montgomery of his generation, Kirk is the most influential saxman of his generation and Rick, with his background in straight ahead jazz, brings an authentic, classic jazz trumpet vibe to the smooth jazz world. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to give them an environment where they could just blow, improvise, challenge themselves, have a good time and really dig into who they are as musicians as opposed to simply commercial recording artists? I liken BWB to the ‘Wes Montgomery Plays the Beatles,’ great players having fun doing beloved tunes with new, funky arrangements.”
Whalum remembers improvising on some be-bop numbers with Braun as the two were rehearsing for the ’99 Montreux date, and the two share with Brown that formative love for both classic R&B and traditional jazz. “The three of us fit perfectly in that category of musicians raised on both styles,” he says. “We have a mutual respect for one another that grows out of our individual respect for the legends who inspired us. Matt envisioned a hip, adult party record for listeners who may not be all into hard bop but who like a taste of that mixed in with a Steely Dan vibe. The success of BWB comes down to the arrangements of the songs, and we all had a hand in those once we got into the studio. It was all about having fun and being funky. The throwback to the CTI era was an obvious thread throughout, and we really rose to the challenge.”
Braun adds, “Those CTI days were all about capturing a certain energy and a unique ensembling of players, doing some new material while making well known songs come to life once again. It’s easy to fall into a trap, trying to recreate a song note for note, but we got in there with the intention of letting these songs take on a new life of their own that could stand independently from their original versions. The success of Groovin’ and the BWB concept lies in keeping our ears open to new ideas, letting things just happen. And allowing everyone their space in the arrangement. Kirk and I could easily get carried away and dominate with the two horns but we focused on creating openings for Norman’s guitar to come in as a complement to what we did in tandem and individually.”