brian culbertson*Brian Culbertson’s ‘Dreams’ come true.

That’s not only the name of his latest 10 selection CD on Verve, it’s also, literally, how he lives his life.

At an early age Culbertson, now 40, dreamed of becoming a musician, so he made it happen.

The result? Culbertson, who released his first record, ‘Long Night Out,’ on Mesa/Blue Moon Records in 1994, is now one of the most popular smooth jazz artists working today. His CDs are popular and his tours are well received and attended. Culbertson, the son of jazz band director Jim Culbertson, is a consistent chart-topper with a catalogue that spans 13 solo albums along with hits that he wrote and produced for other marquee artists.

A contemporary jazz/R&B/funk musician, instrumentalist, producer and performer from Decatur, Illinois, Culbertson, who has been married to his wife, Michelle, for 15 years, plays the keyboard, piano, trombone, drums, bass, trumpet, euphonium and percussion.

And, now for the second year he is producing and hosting the Napa Valley Jazz Getaway (June 5-9).

The Napa Valley Jazz Getaway (www.napavalleyjazzgetaway2013.com)  is an interactive lifestyle experience at which fans can share their passion for wine and jazz with the musicians while dining, during wine receptions and tastings, at autograph sessions, at a golf tournament at Silverado Resort & Spa, and at casual post-concert hangs at the Westin Verasa Napa. Prior to the June 8th concert, a silent auction and wine reception will be held in support of music education to benefit The GRAMMY Foundation at which many of the winery partners will provide complimentary pourings.

More than 1,200 festival goers from all over the nation are expected to flock to California wine country for concerts at the Napa Valley Opera House and Lincoln Theater while more intimate shows will be held at several wineries including Silver Oak and Chimney Rock. VIPs will be treated to a solo piano performance by Culbertson staged in the wine cave at Miner Family Winery, which was one of the most buzzed about shows at last year’s inaugural event.

Culbertson is the founder and artistic director of the lifestyle event, but he enlisted some of his friends to help him out.  The lineup includes: Grammy winners Take 6, Ray Parker Jr., Norman Brown and Kirk Whalum united with Rick Braun as BWB, funksters Larry Graham & Graham Central Station, saxophonists Eric Darius and Michael Lington, guitarist Nick Colionne, R&B vocalist Selina Albright, keyboardist Cecil Ramirez, party band DW3 and special guest comedian Sinbad.

I recently caught up with Culbertson to talk about all the exciting things happening in his life.

After talking to him, it’s quite evident he is cool with the hang.

Darlene Donloe: What’s your criteria for deciding which jazz festivals you’ll play?

Brian Culbertson: It’s not always up to us. It’s up to festival organizers. There are many factors. How much are they offering? Who else is playing? You can’t do all of them in the same city. They have radius clauses. You can do one main festival in Los Angeles.  I’m doing Jazz Fest West in July.

DD: Lets talk about the Napa Valley Jazz Getaway.

BC: I’m actually the organizer for that show. I’m excited about this year. It’s my second year. We are building. Last year was fantastic. People had a great time. We are four times bigger this year than last year. The demand was so high that we sold out four months in advance. We’re close to selling out this year. People are connecting with this idea. It’s a vacation destination.

DD: Why did you want to produce this show?

BC: I wanted to create one that was unique and different and that’s what I did. A typical jazz fest goes something like this – You show up, there are 10,000 people sitting outside, nine acts come on, they play and then they leave. Mine is not like that whatsoever. Ours is an intimate show in theaters each night. Everyday we have an outdoor party then go to a winery and play in a wine cave. We hang out at night with artists and fans. Friday we play golf. We also have a cigar event at a port winery. It’s just all these different, interesting things. Everybody that comes gets an access card – a two for one tasting.  Come and do some wine tasting. There’s food, wine and golf. We’re doing it Napa lifestyle. It’s not a jazz festival, it’s a lifestyle event. It’s completely unique. No one else is doing anything like it.

DD:  Why did you choose these particular artists to participate in the jazz festival or life event?

BC: I wanted to pick people I’ve worked with a lot who were friends of mine. People who I knew would bring a great show. They are cool with the hang. It’s not about going on stage and leaving.  Some of them will be there for five days. Larry Graham – his show is out of control. I had this idea to call Friday night, ‘Funk Night At The Festival.’ Larry and I work together in bringing back the funk record.  He’s the Jimi Hendrix of the bass.  Sinbad is also in. I knew they were all friends. I wanted to create these synergies.

DD: Who is your audience?

BC: The core jazz fans from all over the country and some internationally.  I’m expecting a great mix of people. If you’re sophisticated, into jazz, wine and good food you will appreciate these kinds of events.

DD: Describer your music.

BC: It’s a mix of jazz, R&B, pop, gospel, funk and its even a twinge of New Age. It’s my music. I’ve carved out a unique sound. Hopefully, when you hear a song of mine you know it’s me. On my instrumental songs you can take the piano off, add a vocal and it’s an R&B song.

DD: Are the best musicians born or taught?

BC: It’s a combination. You’re born with some inherent talents and a drive. I felt that from an early age. Still I needed to study. To master an instrument you need lots and lots of practice.

DD: What’s in your CD player?

BC: I must admit I listen to a lot of classic jazz like Miles [Davis] and Coletrane. I also listen to Herbie [Hancock] and that kind of stuff. Then I’ll listen to a lot of contemporary pop/rock like Coldplay and John Mayer. Then, I also like Erik Satie.  I have to be in a certain mood. In my car I listen to XM radio. I listen to the Heat. I like Rhianna, Beyonce, Tre Songz. I listen to everything.

DD: Do you have other goals outside of music?

BC: I’m never going to stop making my records. I can’t. I will always continue to do that.  I love it too much.

In a way I think expanding into producing like this Napa live event is definitely a departure for me. That’s a different brain right there. I did the website and the artwork. I’m 100% involved. I picked out the t-shirt designs and the glasses that have our logo etched.

DD: Did you ever have a Plan B?

BC: No. Nothing. I knew I wanted to be a musician in high school. Didn’t know I wanted to be a recording artist until my sophomore year in college. I did want to be a producer and songwriter. At that point I was like I’ll be a producer. I thought about doing film scores. I did jingles for several years while in Chicago.

DD: Which jingles?

BC: I did United Airlines in the 90s. Remember the Rhapsody in Blue? It was a new arrangement of that Gershwin piece. We did spots for Gator Aid, Sears and McDonalds.  I was 21.  I did it for five years.

DD: You’re on the road quite a bit. What are your feelings about touring? Most of my touring is more in and out. The most I’ll do is a month straight.

DD: Lets talk about your CD ‘Dreams’.

BC: What I like is it has a consistent vibe from top to bottom. You are instantly in a mood and a groove. It will take you away. The power of music is so cool. It transports you.  I like conceptual albums.

DD: How do you work?

BC: I will sit down and know the concept. I will start messing with a groove or some chords. I will improvise and put the song together with no melody. I’ll put down some drums and strings and arrange the whole song. Then I’ll pull up a piano and mess around over this music bed I’ve created. Then I put my melodies over the top of the finished grooves.

DD: Well, that sounds sexy.

BC: It can be a sexy process if it’s flowing. If I’m in here trying to do something and it’s not working, it can get frustrating. I’ll have a block here and there. When I do, I’m going to lunch or have a drink. I don’t want to belabor the point when it’s not working.

DD: How do you know when you’ve got it?

BC: That’s a good question. It has to be something that’s catchy, something you can sing along with. I like melodies that are simple, but not too simple. People can catch on especially the hook, the main part. I’ll keep tweaking. At some point I say, ‘That’s it.  Don’t touch. I don’t know, but I know.

DD: Do you kick it around with others?

BC: I write by myself. I put the track on loop so it plays over and over and over. I’ll literally play piano over it. I’ll just improvise over the top of it by myself, sometimes with the lights down low.

DD: What are your feelings about pure jazz vs. smooth jazz?

BC: It’s just a label. What is it to you? Some of it is smooth sounding. Are you going to say my hard funk song is smooth jazz? It’s not really jazz either. Some of it is and some of it isn’t. People always want to label. I don’t know. It’s R&B, fun, instrumental music. It takes too long to say.

DD: Sounds like you don’t let it bother you.

BC: I don’t really care. Some people think smooth jazz is crappy elevator music. I don’t think they’ve heard all there is out there. Yeah, there is crappy music in the genre. There is crappy music in all genres. Give smooth jazz a fair shot.

 Journalist Darlene Donloe is based in Southern California. Contact her at [email protected]