The Lowcountry Jazz Festival Four days of funky, smooth fun

Brian Culbertson

From smooth rhythms and silky melodies to intensely soulful moments of expression and improvisation, this year's four-night Lowcountry Jazz Festival at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center will showcase some of the top musicians and entertainers in the contemporary jazz scene Thursday through Sunday.

Organized by Jazz Diva Entertainment, a Charlotte-based company dedicated to promoting and celebrating all forms of jazz, the 2014 Lowcountry Jazz Festival marks the sixth year of the event.

This year's roster features several award-winning, internationally acclaimed acts, including blue-eyed soul vocalist Bobby Caldwell, versatile saxophonist/flautist Najee, pianist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Culbertson, modern jazz groups Jazz Attack and Pieces of a Dream, electric guitarist Nick Colionne, bandleader/keyboardist Brian Simpson and sax man Boney James, among others.

"The Lowcountry Jazz Festival features so many award-winning, genre-crossing, jazz-soul-R&B-pop artists that organizers had to add an extra day to the schedule," says Jazz Diva Entertainment's Tammy Greene. "The festival has been named a Top 20 Event by the Southeast Tourism Society. It draws thousands of jazz fans to Charleston and raises funds to benefit Closing the Gap in Health Care Inc., an organization whose mission is to decrease health disparities among the underserved."

Alongside sax man Dwayne Johnson, singer Maysa and Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist Norman Brown, singer-songwriter Caldwell is part of a strong opening Thursday. The New York native is perhaps best known for his sultry, smooth-groovin' 1978 hit "What You Won't Do for Love," but his compositions for other acts such as Boz Scaggs, Amy Grant, Peter Cetera, the Commodores and Al Jarreau have enhanced his reputation as a master of jazzy soul and pop.

The brassy, classy performances Thursday will surely set the tone for the rest of the festival as it bounces through the weekend.

Night Two of the Lowcountry Jazz Festival will feature a variety of styles as Innertwyned Music Group, the touring band for R&B singer Anthony Hamilton, will share the stage with British keyboardist Oli Silk, saxophonist Elan Trotman, woodwind master Najee and Culbertson.

Najee is an award-winning, New York-based champion of modern jazz, R&B and soul. Classically trained and well versed in traditional genres, he favors the tenor sax and flute.

Over the past 30 years, Najee has collaborated with a wild mix of performers, including Prince, Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock. His smooth style, tasteful compositions and soulful technique have earned him two platinum and four gold albums.

"You never stop trying to figure things out," Najee says. "I think I've grown quite a bit over the years as a musician. I've always learned from every musical situation that I've been fortunate to be in. Like playing with Prince for three years - I learned from his artistry and style and business sense. Everywhere I go, I learn something new and take away something with me."

Over the last year, Najee and his combo have toured heavily behind "The Morning After: A Musical Journey," his second release for the Shanachie Entertainment label. The elegant collection covers a lot of ground, from contemporary jazz to easy-going funk and well-polished R&B and soul.

"That was a four-day recording," Najee says of "The Morning After" sessions. "I just went in with the cats, and we ran it down in four days with very little overdubs. It was fun, man. As always, I try to work with people who try to spark something and keep things interesting. It's not as much of a challenge to make new music when I let go and stop trying to do everything by myself. I learned that a long time ago. Fortunately for me, I tend to play with people with whom we can easily find something great together."

Najee has performed at various Charleston-area venues over the years, and he especially looks forward to being a part of this week's festival for the first time. His jazzy mix of styles will fit in nicely with the rest of the lineup.

"This is a new experience in the sense that it's my first time performing the Lowcountry Jazz Festival, but it's not so new in the sense that many of the people playing are those I've worked with all over the country before," he says. "I know that we'll bring elements of smooth jazz to the event, but many of us will bring bits of R&B, soul and blues as well. That's what will make a great show each evening."

For the set at the PAC, Najee might size up the local audience and tailor the set to fit the mood and vibe of the room.

"We do occasionally adjust the song list depending on where we're playing," Najee says. "My band and I recently played a gig right outside of Philadelphia, and we could tell that that audience was R&B-driven, so we had them dancing all night. Sometimes, you have an audience that seems a bit older and serious, and they appreciate us playing some traditional jazz and going to the improvisational side of things. Then, of course, you might have an audience that shows up for the stuff I'm best known for, so we always try to give a good, well-rounded thing.

"We'll play some of the newer pieces, but we know that a lot of people will be there to hear a lot of the older stuff," he adds. "We'll definitely give them that. I expect it'll be a very well-rounded, fun evening."

Playing last on Friday evening, Illinois-based pianist/horn player Brian Culbertson, a veteran composer, contemporary instrumentalist and jazz/funk experimentalist, will co-headline in support of his latest release, "Another Long Night Out."

Culbertson said he has enjoyed performing at previous Lowcountry Jazz Festival shows, in addition to recently co-headlined Earl Klugh's Weekend of Jazz on Kiawah Island, as well.

"This festival is always fun," Culbertson says of the Lowcountry Jazz Fest. "I think it has become one of the great festivals on the circuit. I'm glad to be coming back to Charleston to play it."

His "unique" new collection is actually a reworking of his 1995 debut, "Long Night Out," a low-budget production with a surprisingly refined audio quality and funk feel.

Culbertson produced the debut by way of a Roland keyboard, a computer sequencer and a drum machine. Earlier this year, he revisited the track with the support of an all-star band and studio team, including veteran bassist Nathan East, sax player Candy Dulfer, acoustic guitarist Jonathan Butler, and session electric guitarists Russ Freeman and Steve Lukather (of Toto), plus a 33-piece orchestra.

"Another Long Night Out" was officially issued by the BCM label in February.

"It's definitely unique. I've seen musicians and bands remix and remaster previous works, but I don't know of anyone else who've completely rerecorded from scratch," Culbertson says. "I always kind of wished I could have done different things on the original album. At that time, I didn't know enough or know enough of the right people, so I had to kind of make do with a drum machine and synthesizers. To have this opportunity to go back, revisit songs, and use players that I wish I could have used back then was pretty awesome. The results were pretty surreal."

Over the years, Culbertson transformed his act from a studio-based one-man project into a fully realized combo situation that could jam and groove on stage.

"I think I've grown a lot as a piano player since my first album," Culbertson says. "When I recorded 'Long Night Out' in 1994, I'd never actually played a gig as a pianist. I was known back then in Chicago as a trombonist, believe it or not. I didn't even have the money to make 'Long Night Out' with a real piano at the time. It's a keyboard sound.

"I also wasn't a very good pianist then, either," he adds. "So I had to manipulate the tracks with a computer a bit. I always wanted to redo it all. I wanted to up my level, and 20 years later, I feel like my technique, musicianship and sense of confidence is much stronger, on stage and in the studio."

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Culbertson focused on producing a variety of recordings, from his own instrumental session to soundtracks, holiday standards and commercial jingles. By the time he released the 2008 album "Bringing Back the Funk," he's established himself as one of the major players in the urban jazz/modern R&B genre.

"The only problem with crossing genres is having to add them to your official description," he laughs. "The tag can get long. Currently, I think it's a broad range of musical styles - a great mix of contemporary jazz, R&B and funk. Occasionally, I'll put New Age, gospel, soul in there, too. And there's a little bit of that classic fusion element in there, as well."

Over the past few years, as Culbertson recorded and toured around the world, his dynamic performing style and flexible technique has earned praise from fans and critics alike. These days, he's thrilled to have the backing of top-notch musicians who easily click with his songs, arrangements and improvisational moments.

"My touring band can cover the gamut and handle everything from the serious funk and R&B to the lighter jazz," Culbertson says. "We definitely incorporate all of that into the shows. We consider this tour to be a 20th anniversary tour, so we'll be playing at least one track from each album I've released. I've been touring with most of my bandmates for years, so there's a great chemistry going on. They're all phenomenal musicians. It'll be a great mix of songs and a high-caliber performance."

Saturday's busy festival schedule will start early in and around the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. Kicking things off will be a free health summit called "Jazzing with Sugar" from 9-11:30 a.m. at the adjacent Embassy Suites at 5055 International Blvd. Designed as a summit over breakfast, the event will feature a seminar led by Dr. Thaddeus John Bell and a musical performance by keyboardist Dar'rell Ravenell.

A pre-concert meet-and-greet hosted by local station Magic 107.3 FM at the Embassy Suites is set for 3 p.m. that afternoon with radio personalities on hand and a CD signing session with guitarist Nick Colionne.

On the main stage at the PAC, the lineup will feature an array of visiting and local acts, including trombonist Buff Dillard, bassist Gerald Veasley, contemporary jazz band Pieces of a Dream, and horn-driven group Jazz Attack, featuring saxophonist Euge Groove, guitarist Peter White and trumpeter Rick Braun.

Sunday's early-day events will feature a sold-out Lowcountry Jazz Festival cruise with pianist Alex Bugnon. At the PAC, the final concert of the festival boasts saxophonist Dante Lewis, trumpeter Joey Sommerville, with special guest pianist Bob Baldwin, Nick Colionne, with guest keyboardist Brian Simpson, and the big headliner, saxophonist Boney James and his band.

The Lowcountry Jazz Festival initially began in 2009 as a one-night smooth-jazz gig at the PAC with alto sax star Boney James in the headlining slot. One of the top-selling instrumental artists in the smooth jazz genre, James drew an impressive crowd.

"It's kind of a blur, but I remember having a lot of fun at the first festival in 2009," he says. "I'm glad it has established itself in Charleston, and I know a lot of musicians and fans look forward to enjoying it every year."

James, born James Oppenheim, grew up in New York and relocated to Los Angeles as a musically inclined teenager. He earned a degree in history at the University of California, Los Angeles before veering into a career as a professional musician in the mid-1980s, first as the keyboardist with Morris Day of the Time and eventually as a sideman on tenor, alto, soprano and flute.

James collaborated with Randy Crawford (who came up with the nickname "Boney" for the sax man), Sheena Easton, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Caldwell and others before pursuing his solo career in the mid-'90s.

"I came up in the '70s when there was a little bit more of a free approach to music in general," James says. "A lot of different genres could easily coexist, side-by-side. Somehow, things seemed to become more rigid, and I think that's just antithetical. I just ignore that stuff and do my own thing.

"I'm not a traditionalist at all," he adds. "I'm always glad to break down musical barriers and blur lines."

As James delved deeper into pop/soul/R&B side of the modern jazz scene in the 2000s, he earned a reputation for delivering cool hooks and serious skills, both on recordings and on stages. James' diverse blend of styles kept critics and fans on their toes, too.

"I was just a listener like everyone else, so when I heard something new, I often tried to incorporate that into the music that I was making," he says. "I wanted to have fun with things, and I wanted my records to be entertaining and fun. I never wanted them to be the same old thing. I still want to stretch the envelope each time and be creative with things."

James's creative leanings recently steered him to dabble in Latin rhythms and melodies on his latest studio album "The Beat," released last year on the Concord label.

"We're still very much on tour in support of 'The Beat' album," James says of his backing band's latest adventures. "It seems to have incredible legs. We're glad to continue to introduce it to new audiences this year. I'm never comfortable with the idea of having a concept record and having that idea dictate how things turn out, but I did want to experiment a bit on 'The Beat' and explore the idea of doing music with Latin grooves. I started with the song 'Batacuda,' which is a classic Sergio Mendes track, and as we worked on it, it became a mash-up of that Brazilian style and R&B. It made me feel creative about writing songs with different rhythms from around the world. Things turned out really good."

What might local fans expect from James and his band this week? Plenty of everything.

"The show is pretty well arranged, but there are also moments built into the show where we're creating things right there on the spot," James says. "It's a key ingredient to have that communication between musicians, and the audience can feel that spontaneous energy. I definitely still enjoy touring and playing live. The thrill has not gone at all. It's what keeps me up there doing it. Every time I'm on stage in front of audience that wants to hear music, it's a great time for me. I'm very grateful to the fans for being able to do this."