An Interview with Brian Culbertson
by: Casey Pukl
Don’t let the serious face in his press photo fool you— while Brian Culbertson is a serious master of all things jazz piano, he’s also a kind-hearted jokester with fantastic hair. With twelve records to his name (and lucky number 13 on the way), Culbertson is one of the most highly regarded contemporary jazz pianists of our generation. His last record, XII, featured performances by some of the biggest names in R&B including Faith Evans and Brian McKnight. Album after album, he continues to prove that he’s not only an incredible, innovative, talented, and forward thinking writer, producer, and player, but he’s also a passionate educator. Culbertson strives to reach out to young musicians and teach them through his own experiences in the music industry. I had the chance to catch up with him last week and get the scoop on his upcoming show at Anthology with David Benoit, as well as his upcoming album, the jazz festival he’s working on, and where he’s been teaching lately!
CP: Let’s get right into it— tell me about this Piano 2 Piano show you’re doing!
BC: Actually, that will literally be the first real show. We’ve done two warm up shows almost a year ago with just a few songs. So now we’re planning a full over an hour-long show of just piano duets— just David and I; no one else will be on stage! It’ll be just the two of us! I’m really excited because I’ve never done anything like this ever.
The idea came when I was at David’s house about a year and a half ago, and he was debuting some new classical pieces that he had just finished. We were hanging out afterwards, and he said, ‘You know, Brian, we should get together some time and do something.’
So I did that, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure, sure,’ thing that we all do when we’re hanging out (laughs). So afterwards, I went home and started thinking about it, and it was like, ‘Hmmm… I wonder if we could do something…’
So I called him and asked him what he thought about doing literally just a piano duet tour. So we started brainstorming ideas and throwing song ideas back and forth, and we learned each other’s material on our own. Then we got together and put together piano duet arrangements of all of our songs. It’s actually very challenging.
CP: I’d imagine it is!
BC: You’ve really got to know who’s wanting to play what when. You can’t step on each other. It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s really fun.
CP: Do you feel like you have to hang back a little more so you’re not playing all over each other?
BC: Oh no, it’s actually the total opposite. I need to play more because there’s no band to rely on! You can’t just throw it over to the bass for a solo. That’s not going to happen (laughs)! There’s no resting at all. If he’s playing a bass line, I’m playing the melody and another part, and vice versa. We really have to map out what’s going on where so we don’t have any musical train wrecks. There’s a lot of memory going on. You know what I’m talking about?
CP: Absolutely. I can only imagine.
BC: We’re actually going to be rehearsing for five days straight leading up to the very day before our first show at Anthology to really lock it down and make it tight!
CP: What other projects have you been working on lately?
BC: Actually, both of us have been in the studio working on new records. I think David’s is coming out in late spring, and mine is due in June. We’ve both really been hibernating a lot in the studio. Beyond that, I’ve actually been touring a lot with just my band. I went on a couple of cruise ships for the smooth jazz cruise and all that. I got to hang out with David Sanborn a lot, who was the host of the cruise. We actually started talking, and we’re putting together a whole summer tour for the two of us! So I’ll be touring with two Davids this year (laughs).
CP: It’s the year of the David duos!
BC: That’s right!
CP: I heard you’re also planning your own jazz festival. Is that accurate?
BC: Yes. That’s actually taking up a massive amount of my time. It’s called the Napa Valley Jazz Getaway. I came up with this concept of a mixture of concerts, wine tastings, dinners, Q&A sessions, this and that, there’s a wine reception, a silent auction for the Grammy Foundation, there’s so many things! There’s an art exhibit, there’s comedy— Sinbad is coming with us! There are lots of different artists, Eric Darius, Eric Marienthal, Oleta Adams, just tons of musicians. It’s really going to be a few days of a whole bunch of different things. I’m really excited about this. This is going to be the first year, and we’re going to make it an annual event and keep growing it. I’ve got a lot of friends up in Napa, and I love going up there. I met a lot of the winery owners and people up there, so it’s really exciting. It’s actually almost sold out already! Tickets just went on sale a few days ago, and it’s almost full.
CP: That’s awesome! Congrats! It sounds like the best kind of sensory overload I can think of.
BC: Totally! Already, Napa is over the top with the scenery and the food and the wine, but we’re throwing some great music in there and more! I think we’ve got a big San Diego contingency of folks coming up there as well. We’ve got people flying in from all over the country for this! People are from all over the place, and it’s really fantastic!
CP: Who have you been listening to lately?
BC: Oh wow! You know, I’ve been listening to the latest Coldplay record. I’m really all over the map. I’m always listening to different stuff to check it all out. What else… I mean… I’ll be just randomly flipping the radio too to see what’s on top 40, classical, everything. I’m ADD when it comes to music. I want to get it all in.
CP: I feel like as a musician, you have to be that way.
BC: I think a lot of people expect me to just listen to smooth jazz, but it’s the total opposite for me. I don’t listen to a lot of it because it’s what I do all day. I’m listening to every other style of music to be influenced and keep it fresh.
CP: You obviously do a ton of writing, so I’d love to pick your brain about your writing process. Where do you usually start the writing process?
BC: Most of the time I’ll start with a groove— an idea for a drum beat. [This is one part where I wish the audio was easy to insert, because Brian started beat boxing different grooves]. That sort of sets the mood or vibe. If it’s a slow jam, I’ll start with a slower something [insert beat boxing here]. If it’s funky, I’ll do something more up-tempo like [insert more beat boxing here]. So once I get that, that gets me in the mood to either play a bass line or some chords over the top of it. Then I just slowly keep adding parts on top of it. I’ll add a Rhodes or a string part or a bass line. Then once I get the form of the song together, the last thing I’ll do is put the piano melody on top of the whole track that I built. A lot of my melodies really fit into the groove well because it’s the last thing.
CP: That makes perfect sense.
BC: Yeah! That’s typical for me.
CP: Do you use any particular programs or loops to write?
BC: Yeah, I work on tracks in a program called Logic, which Apple makes. Garageband is for beginners, and Logic is kind of the professional version of it. There are literally millions of different drum loops and sounds to go through, so I’ll just scroll through banks to see what inspires me. Sometimes a sound will inspire me as well.
And then I record and mix in a different program called Pro Tools. I use both.
CP: Yeah, Logic is the easiest way to get whatever is in your head out, and then Pro Tools is the best way to make it sound better.
BC: I totally agree. That’s why I use both.
CP: Changing gears a little bit, I know you do a lot of clinics and music education— you were actually just guest teaching at Columbia for a week. What is your musical background like? Do you have a lot of formal training?
BC: Well, I grew up in central Illinois, and my father was the band director for the high school in town. I literally grew up with music in the house, so there wasn’t really a choice; I was going to be in the band! (Laughs) I took classical piano lessons in the beginning, and then I slowly got into jazz and writing my own material when I was about 12 or 13 years old. Then I continued, got way more into it in high school. The original Macintosh computer came out in the mid 1980’s, and I got way into that and using that with the first music software when it started coming out. I was one of the first generations of kids to be using computers and technology making music. So I literally grew up with that, and it’s really second nature to me.
Then I started formally studying composition and arranging with this guy up in Chicago who taught at DePaul University, and he really got me to go to DePaul for college. So I went there for a couple of years, and while I was there, I made my first demo tape that landed me the first record deal. At that point, it was like ok, I’m going to school as a jazz studies major, but I’m making records, so maybe I’ll just make records now (laughs). It was an amazing thing, and it doesn’t happen that way very often. It was really quick. I was really fortunate.
So after that I started touring, and then I also got into the jingle market writing commercial jingles for television ads. I was actually working for the guy I studied with in high school who owned a jingle company, and he hired me to work for him. So we were writing for McDonalds, United Airlines, Gatorade, you know, all these massive national TV commercial spots. Meanwhile, I was still making my own records and touring, so my life was pretty crazy at that point. I was like 22 when I started doing that, but then I decided to move to LA and concentrate on just making records. Now here we are!
With the teaching, with my dad being a teacher, I definitely saw a lot of that. I loved telling kids about my experiences and what I thought would be cool to know. As much as I can, I try to do master classes in a city I’m in. I actually just did one in Seattle a few days ago. A bunch of kids came in, we played a few songs, talked about becoming a musician, being in the industry, and I just love doing that.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a week at Columbia in Chicago working with their different groups. We put on a concert, did some recording sessions, all kinds of stuff. I love doing that stuff.
CP: It’s so important. I feel like what I remember most of college is people coming in and giving clinics. It’s a different perspective.
BC: Absolutely. It’s different than your teacher telling you that you need to do this. It’s different when a person from the outside comes in and says the same thing!
CP: (Laughs) Totally. It kind of validates it. What are you most looking forward to about coming to Anthology?
BC: I think my favorite part about Anthology is the intimacy of the setting. It’s obviously a beautiful place to play. It sounds great, it looks great, the food is great, the people in San Diego are way into the music, so I know we’re going to have an electric audience. The whole vibe is fantastic. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s definitely one of my favorite places to play. You can be up close with the people, interact with folks. It’s different than a big theater where everything is slightly sterile. We’re going to be telling jokes, doing this, and it’ll be a great little interaction going on.
Don’t miss out on this incredible debut! With three shows on two nights, there’s no excuse!