Trumpeter Rick Braun, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and guitarist Norman Brown are collectively known – in the music world – as BWB.
So far, the trio has built an enviable reputation as one of jazz-funk’s super groups. Between them, and individually, they have contributed a number of excellent award-winning recording projects.
The trio’s third album, BWB, released in April 2016, is packed with ten fantastic contemporary jazz tracks that cook up a festive mood by blending jazz with funk, soul, and rhythm & blues. The trio’s first two albums, Groovin’, which was released in 2002, and Human Nature (2013), featured covers and originals, but the material in BWB is derived entirely from their own compositions.
Human Nature, of course, is a tribute to Michael Jackson, the late pop-music icon. Not that Braun, Whalum and Brown were out to make a copy of Michael’s hit. Instead, their mission was essentially to give a jazz interpretation to the music of “The King of Pop” — a very tall order, indeed.
After some brainstorming sessions about the songs to select for the album, and the arrangements to be incorporated, the trio went flat out to make the album. And the result: BWB scored their first Number One hit with Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground), one among many of Michael’s greatest hits.
In the BWB recording, the three celebrated instrumentalists have created a potpourri of sounds which map out footprints of their hometowns: Whalum brings in the soul vibe from his home city of Memphis; Braun throws in some punchy funk grooves from Philadelphia; while Brown serves some good portions of jazz chops from Kansas City.
Coupled with great improvisations, the result is a wonderful offering of some mind-blowing jazz-fusion by the three musicians who also have had a very strong friendship.
It is not lost to Nairobi jazz fans that Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown were featured — alongside saxophonist Gerald Albright — at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival in Nairobi on December 5, 2015, and they were a thrill to watch and listen perform.
This album, which contains 10 songs, was recorded at Braun’s home studio in Los Angeles, California, where Whalum and Brown had moved in for a week alongside their loved ones to make this recording what it is: an awesome, happy, fun-filled and funky jazz offering.
And in making it a complete reality, the trio also got some augmenting support from such inestimable musicians as bassist Nathaniel Kearney, Jr., percussionist Lenny Castro, and keyboardist Hamilton Hardin, among others.
The opening track, Triple Dare, is a slow funk whose intro features Braun, Whalum and Brown play catchy and easy melodic lines in unison, with heavy brass blending in with a flute to create a flowing orchestration.
This, subsequently, leads to the first solo on the tune taken by Brown in his trademark single-notes picking. The second solo is taken on the tenor saxophone by Whalum, who hands then hands the role to Braun, who takes a brief solo on the flugelhorn.
Other songs in the DC are Bust a Move, BWB, Bolly Bop, I Want You Girl, Lemonade, Memphis Steppin’, Hey Baby, North Star, and Turn Up.
Bust a Move is a soul-inspired shuffle piece that is crafted in the style of the 1970s and 1980s Crusaders — a popular barrier-breaking jazz super-group whose members were originally from Texas featuring the late saxophonist-bassist Wilton Felder, the late trombonist Wayne Henderson, drummer Stix Hooper, guitarist Larry Carlton, and the late pianist Joe Sample.
In this piece, Braun, Whalum and Brown do a sing-along chorus line in unison several times then venture into some soulful improvisations. At some point near the end, Norman Brown performs a brief but infectious single-note runs while simultaneously scatting (wordless vocals) in the fashion of one of his major influences and inspiration, guitarist George Benson.
BWB (the title track), introduced by Whalum and Braun on tenor sax and flugelhorn, is a steady soul-shuffle arranged with ample open spaces to late Braun’s flugelhorn, Brown’s guitar and Whalum’s saxophone flow easily and convey the message.
Bolly Bop stands out as a unique funky piece which is fashioned in the style of early funk groups — the likes of Hue’s Corporation, Brass Construction, Earth Wind and Fire, Cool and The Gang, just to name some — but with a rare twist in the bridge where the band incorporates Indian musical motifs flavoured with tabla percussion sound.
The trio’s unison playing is so moving in the slow-jam I Want You Girl. The solos taken by the three instrumentalists, though brief, are well crafted in a weave that’s so captivating. Braun’s staccato and chromatic runs on his horn, exchanging brief lines with Whalum and Brown, makes this tune so captivating; I only wish this ending part was extended!
Still, there’s Lemonade, a really groovy, funky-jazz burner. This tune is almost indescribable for its fantastic vocals and instrument arrangements that incorporate various idioms. Braun is featured embellishing on a valve-trombone, and there’s a sprinkle of some percussion work, too. Unfortunately, this piece fades away when the groove is really at its peak.
If the album BWB is the benchmark for this trio, then BWB — the band — is headed to an even higher enviable reputation as a contemporary jazz outfit. Indeed, the creative work featured in BWB is a brilliant audio offering of a spirit of joyfulness.