Individually, they are three titans of contemporary music: Rick Braun, the gifted trumpeter/flugelhornist with the golden voice; GRAMMY® Award-winning tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum, the Memphis-born wunderkind who mixes Beale Street, gospel, the blues and bop; and Norman Brown, the GRAMMY®-winning guitarist who brings a Louisiana lilt to his Wes Montgomery/George Benson influenced six-string soulful strut. They came together eleven years ago as the supergroup known as BWB and their historic album Groovin’, made them one of the most sought-after groups at that time.
This terrific triad reassembled with the June 18, 2013 release of Human Nature on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group (international release dates may vary). This long-awaited sequel to their debut project spotlights BWB’s stupendous reimaging of eleven selections made famous by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
“We made the first BWB record in 2002 when we were all on Warner Bros. Jazz,” Braun says. “We did a world tour behind the record. And then we’ve all been off doing our own thing – so this is really a reunion. We have an incredible amount of respect for each other: We phrase together. We complete each other’s sentences, musically. We’re really just a good bunch of guys making music, and grateful to be doing that.”
“This is a fun collaboration,” Brown says. “First of all, we really love each other. We’ve been good friends for the longest time. Rick is a very serious trumpet player; so is Kirk on his horn. And then we feed off each other and bring stuff to life that way. So it was Rick’s idea to make these songs, to do the Michael Jackson songbook. So we just started picking our favorite ones. It was hard to narrow it down, but we narrowed it down to eleven tunes and we hope that we did him proud.” BWB is augmented by keyboardist John Stoddart, bassist Braylon Lacey, drummer Khari Parker, percussionist Lenny Castro and organist Ralph Lofton.
Though Braun, Whalum and Brown are often labeled in the limiting category of “smooth jazz,” the selections on this project prove beyond doubt that this recording was produced in the time-honored tradition of modern jazz musicians interpreting and elevating popular music, like Ahmad Jamal did with “Poinciana” and John Coltrane did with “My Favorite Things.”
“You take a Miles Davis,” Whalum says, “for him to record a Michael Jackson song [like ‘Human Nature’] says something. It’s a validation. We’re not the first musicians to take a serious approach to Michael’s music. But for us it’s an honor because the feeling of the music communicates so beautifully. That’s ultimately what music is supposed to be about.”
The eleven tracks on Human Nature offer an exciting potpourri of Michael Jackson’s artistry – from his days with The Jackson Five to his historic albums as a solo artist, including Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad. And BWB brilliantly recasts Jackson’s hits in new and imaginative ways. The CD’s title track – arguably Jackson’s most original and haunting song – was rendered with a spare arrangement at a slower tempo than the original, but with the same Quiet Storm, Debussyian melodic imagery of the original track, laced with vocalist Sheléa’s airy, angelic vocal. “We broke it down. We kept it at a quiet overtone,” Brown says. “The melody speaks for itself, with Sheléa delivering that beautiful melody. We played around that. I played a lot of arpeggiated chords. It turned out to be a beautiful piece.”
BWB’s jazz extensions of Jackson’s music are also evident of their energetic and evocative take on the megahit “Billie Jean,” played with a riff familiar to all post-bop aficionados. “Michael had an ear for that [harmony] and had a real jazz sensibility,” Braun says. “Let’s take ‘Billie Jean.’ When you look at the chord comping pattern, and the bassline, you can actually play Miles Davis’ ‘Milestones’ on it. The harmonies in the song ‘I Can’t Help it,’ which was written by Stevie Wonder, are so complex, that playing solos on top of that was challenging for all of us. So it’s not a fluke that Michael Jackson became the king of pop. The way he phrased melodies, it’s surprisingly complicated. It’s lyrical, but interesting and a lot deeper than would expect from a pop artist.”
Another Jackson hit, “Who’s Lovin’ You,” from his days with the Jackson Five, is given a below-the-Mason Dixon Line, Juke Joint makeover, courtesy of Whalum’s down-home arrangement. “It was the perfect example of Michael’s music and how profound it is,” Whalum says. “Arguably the blues is the most profound expression of what’s inside of your soul. Michael sang that song when he was eleven years old, and he sang it like he had his heart broken, in the classical form of the blues. Harmonically, it’s a blues song.”
“I’m playing a lot of blues guitar on that one,” Brown remarked, “because Kirk’s arrangement was a Memphis blues. And I heard Albert and B.B. King. So I picked up a smaller, hollow-body guitar.”
BWB’s take on “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground,” dances with a Miami Sound Machine Latin vibe, “The idea is to connect with the audience on a different level,” Whalum says. “[Our version of the song says] you paid your money, you might as well shake your butt!” Braun’s ingenious reggae-ska version of “Beat It” rocks with the kind of pop-Caribbean cadences one would hear from Sting and the Police. Whalum and Stoddart rework Jackson’s Stevie Wonder composed track, “I Can’t Help It” with some sly aural alchemy. “We started by taking the song out of even meter signature, and we put it in 3/4 – 6/8,” Whalum says. “So right away that changed the complexion of the the song. And we had to morph the melody into something different. I thought it was so sexy!”
RICK BRAUN – The scintillating music on this provocative project is the culmination of three master musicians who came together from diverse backgrounds. Hailing from Allentown, PA, Rick Braun, a graduate of the prestigious Eastman School of Music, gigged with a fusion group, Auracle, wrote “Here With Me,” a hit with the rock group REO Speedwagon, and released over fifteen recordings as a leader, including Intimate Secrets, Body & Soul, Shake it Up (with Boney James) and Rick Braun “Sings with Strings.”
KIRK WHALUM – Growing up in Memphis, TN, saxophonist/flutist Kirk Whalum came of age in one of America’s most musically rich cities, where one was required to master gospel, R&B, jazz, and the blues. Graduating from Texas Southern University in Houston, Whalum cut his jazz chops during the city’s vibrant night club scene of the ’80s. Though he’s recorded with a variety of artists, from Yolanda Adams and Barbra Streisand to Quincy Jones and most notably Whitney Houston, Whalum, an ordained minister, has a passion to educate young musicians and serves as Chief Creative Officer of the STAX Music Academy and the STAX Museum of American Soul Music in his hometown. A 2011 GRAMMY® winner for Best Gospel Song, he has recorded twenty-plus solo CDs including The Promise, Romance Language and The Gospel According to Jazz series.
NORMAN BROWN – Hailing from Shreveport, LA, Norman Brown was raised in Kansas City, KS, and absorbed a complex confluence best of southern and Midwestern musical styles. Inspired equally by Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery, Brown moved to Los Angeles after graduating high school, attended and taught at the Musicians Institute in that city. Brown’s eight CDs released as a leader include his 1992 MoJazz label debut, Just Between Us, his 1994 gold- certified album After The Storm and Better Days Ahead, released in 1996. In 1993, his Just Chillin’ CD earned him a GRAMMY® in the Best Pop Instrumental category. In addition to his career as a musician, Brown also works as a broadcaster on the Smooth Jazz Radio Network.
It all comes together on Human Nature – three great musicians celebrating one immortal artist in a celebratory reunion that’s music to everyone’s ears. “We went our separate ways eleven years ago,” Norman Brown says. “But I find it really fascinating that after all of that time, we could come back together and gel right away, and keep that same old feeling.
What ultimately comes out is a cohesive BWB sound.”