As a keyboard player who doubles on trombone, it comes as no surprise to find Tower of Power, Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire among contemporary jazz star Brian Culbertson’s chief influences.
The impact of those household names, however, pales in comparison with that of the head of his household growing up, dad Jim Culbertson. An award-winning high school band director in Decatur, Ill., the senior Culbertson introduced his son to music, helped hone his talent as a teen and emerged as one of his biggest boosters when Culbertson, then in his early 20s, broke through nationally.
“We always had a really good kind of working relationship,” Culbertson told me in an interview a few years back. “I was actually in his band in high school and we had to act kind of like I was just a normal student and this and that. I always kind of felt that way.”
The past 15 years have seen Culbertson emerge as one of smooth jazz’s most popular artists. He and his band open a weekend run Thursday at Yoshi’s in Oakland. The dates include a ring-in-the-New-Year show set for 11 p.m. Saturday.
Audiences can expect a high-energy performance from Culbertson, who doesn’t shy away from a bit of running around the stage and even moments of mugging for the crowd.
“It’s about the music, obviously, first and foremost, but it’s also about entertaining the audience,” he said. “I want to get the audience involved and really make it worth their dollar.”
These are sets that, both in their passion and professionalism, are far removed from those Culbertson played on his first tours. Having scored a surprise hit with the self-recorded “Long Night Out” (1994), Culbertson’s initial dates involved nearly as much learning as entertaining.
“It wasn’t so good,” he recalled. “Back then, I didn’t have a manger or a tour manager or anybody, so I was dealing with everything. It was great that I had a couple of guys in the band who were older and had done tours. But I had to do it to learn how to get to this point.”
Culbertson began studying music at age 7, moving from piano to drums to trombone by the time he reached junior high school. Music made perfect sense not only because of his father’s profession but for the fact there was constantly music in the house. In fact, Culbertson can recall being a teenager and telling his parents to turn down the stereo, he was trying to get some sleep.
He was also curious and creative. Bored by the pieces he was expected to play at a piano recital, Culbertson began composing his own. The results won him recognition from Downbeat magazine and acceptance into DePaul University in Chicago, where he also studied privately with pianist Cliff Colnot.
The move to Chicago proved momentous. In the summer of 1993, while living on the third floor of a costume shop on the city’s north side, Culbertson turned his apartment into a makeshift recording studio and with the help of a roommate cut a three-song demo. He sent the disc to a family friend at Mesa/Bluemoon Records, who played it for label executives.
They liked what they heard and two weeks later signed the 20-year-old to a six-album deal. “Long Night Out” became a hit and Culbertson hit the road, but he was still a long way from making a decent living.
Re-enter Colnot, who recruited his former student to write commercial jingles. Culbertson supplemented his income by helping sell everything from McDonald’s and Nintendo to United Airlines and Princess Cruises. In addition, the job sharpened his composing skills.
“That tended to be the most amazing learning experience,” Culbertson said. “Every day, we did a completely different style of music and sometimes several in the same day. So I got really good at doing every kind of music very fast and creating hooks that are very memorable. I definitely try to use that in my writing.”
The jingles helped pay the bills as Culbertson built a national audience with the albums “Modern Life” (1995), “After Hours” (1996), “Somethin’ Bout Love” (1999), “Come On Up” (2003), “It’s On Tonight” (2005) and “Bringing Back the Funk” (2008). His latest release is the aptly titled “XII.”
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