Jazz Norfolk: Modern Day Standards
By Jim Newsom
In the world of contemporary jazz, BWB is a bona fide supergroup. The matchup of guitarist Norman Brown, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and trumpeter Rick Braun is a smooth jazzer’s dream-come-true. They first united on disc and on tour in 2002, stopping off at Chrysler Hall along the way. They’ve just joined forces again for a new recording, Human Nature, and a visit to the Norfolk Jazz Festival on July 19th.
“This is a beautiful thing,” Norman Brown told me recently. “Fans have been asking for it ever since then so we had to come together.
“A friend of mine broke it down. He said, ‘It’s like the NBA all-stars. Those guys come together once a year. As fans, we always wanted to see music like that. And you guys are doing it every weekend, so this is really great.’ I had never looked at it like that! It’s really stimulating and inspiring to be able to stand next to my peers and play like that.”
Brown has been near the top of the jazz guitar heap since his first CD, Just Between Us, in 1992. But he was originally attracted to his instrument listening to rock music as a youngster growing up in Kansas City.
“It started with Jimi Hendrix,” he said. “Jimi blew my mind—that screaming and hollering, his guitar was so expressive! I wanted to play like Jimi and I tried to learn a lot of his stuff. When my father saw that I was serious, he took me to the basement and said, ‘OK, if you like guitar, check this out.’ And he put Wes Montgomery on. Man, Wes had a whole ‘nother thing going on with the chords soloing and playing with the thumb. I fell in love with that.
“Those were the cats until I heard George Benson Breezin’. I didn’t even know he had made records before that, but my sister came running in the house one day with this record and said ‘you gotta hear this, you gotta hear this!’ I started listening to that record and I was just stuck all day.”
George Benson is the reference point most listeners and reviewers used when Brown first appeared on the scene. His fluid, tasty guitar work recalls and draws on Benson’s classic records. When I asked if he’d had lessons, Brown laughed:
“My dad took me to take lessons at a local music store one day and I told the guy that I wanted to learn jazz. He said, ‘OK, let’s find a book and we’ll learn together.’ I figured then, no, this is not the future for me. And I never took a lesson after that.
“After high school I played around locally. But I knew I had to get to California and I knew I had to learn some more about music and guitar. So I found the Guitar Institute [in Hollywood], went there as a student, graduated, learned a great deal of stuff there. I got exposed to so many wonderful players in all styles. And after graduation, I ended up getting a job there teaching. I was there for about ten years and then I got the record deal with Motown.”
He was one of the early stars of the nascent smooth jazz radio format.
“I think that was a promotional idea someone came up with at some radio station,” he said of smooth jazz. “Back when I made my first two records, the format didn’t exist. It was just contemporary jazz.
“Then they started doing singles. My first two records didn’t even have singles; they played everything off of them. But when they started doing singles, that’s when the cookie-cutter stuff started.”
Brown and his BWB mates have avoided the “cookie-cutter stuff” while surviving and even flourishing in the strange world of the modern music biz.
“The major labels got out of the business,” he explained. “I was at Warner Brothers at the time when that started. They closed the Warner Jazz Division. Man that was a big mistake. The same thing happened at Motown. Mojazz was killing, we were doing great. But they got this new president, a hip-hop guy from New York who had no idea what to do with us and this label. So he closed it.
“The day after my contract expired, Warner Brothers called me. I did three records there, won a Grammy, and had top ten R&B hits as well as the jazz. Then they closed the jazz division but kept me and Boney James. They put him in the pop department and put me in the R&B department.”
He and BWB are now in the Concord Music Group family, on the Heads Up label. On Human Nature, the trio brings new life to a set of songs associated with Michael Jackson. The choice of material is spot-on and the playing is inspired.
“These are modern day standards,” Brown said. “To me, a standard is one of those songs that everybody knows and everybody loves. That’s how those standards were, back in the day—you’d go to clubs and that’s what you’d hear.
“We went in live together, not like nowadays when we send files across the country to each other. We all went into the studio together and took a week to cut this stuff, looking into each other’s eyes and feeding off of each other. I really think that comes across on the record.”
Norfolk Jazz Festival
BWB: Norman Brown, Kirk Whalum, Rick Braun
Town Point Park
July 19 – 7:45 pm