A few weeks ago, I accomplished the feat of collecting copies of each of the 15 CD albums released by Brian Culbertson. As a collector of smooth jazz albums, I feel it’s a great honor to reach this milestone as I follow one of my most-listened-to artists.
To celebrate, I have ranked each CD album from my most to least favorite. This fun challenge was not easy at all, due to Culbe’s vast discography all sounding great. (I only ranked 12 out of the 15; please see my explanation below the rankings.):
1. It’s On Tonight (2005)
My number one CD by Brian Culbertson features a very well-conceived album that expresses the excitement of romance. It’s On Tonight includes a diverse cast of jazz and R&B artists, such as Ledisi, Chris Botti, Boney James, Kirk Whalum and Patti Austin.
Right away Culbe starts off strong with two hits “Let’s Get Started” (my favorite song of his) and “Hookin’ Up.” These two songs exemplify his signature sound, fusing elements of funk with jazz and R&B.
Along with some interesting instrumentals are a few exceptional R&B vocals. There is the nice title track, “It’s On Tonight,” featuring Will Downing on vocals. Later on, Patti Austin’s soulful singing teams well with Kirk Whalum’s sax on Culbe’s “Love Will Never Let You Down.”
Another song comes with a mild warning: If provocative lyrics bother you, you might want to skip through “Wear It Out,” with Marc Nelson. Still, this song features spectacular piano playing by Culbe.
Speaking of his piano, that’s what I find very pleasing about this album. From the two hits at the top to his classical-sounding “Reflections” at the end, Culbe’s piano sounds very polished and sharp. Also, I cannot forget to mention “Dreaming Of You,” which is the first ever song I heard by the artist. Clearly, It’s On Tonight is a winner for me, for its musical concept of love and Culbe’s signature sound.
2. Bringing Back The Funk (2008)
Bringing Back The Funk could arguably be the outright No. 1. It is definitely one of Culbertson’s most ambitious recordings. Throughout this album, the artist digs deep into his roots of funk, which he avidly listened to during his childhood in Decatur, Ill. A photo of the pianist as a child on the album’s cover illustrates his retrospection of his musical upbringing.
Culbe enlisted the help of Earth, Wind, and Fire founder, the late Maurice White, which you can see more about in a YouTube video. White oversaw much of the project as Culbe’s executive producer.
The pianist also collaborated with Sheldon Reynolds on “Always Remember,” which seems to sound like an anthem that pays tribute to all the old-school funk and psychedelic bands. Reynolds said he intended the song to be happy-sounding, like many E. W. & F. hits.
Other star personnel on the album include Bootsy Collins, on “Funkin’ Like My Father,” Gerald Albright, with saxes on “Hollywood Swinging,” and Larry Graham with Ronnie Laws, on “The House of Music.”
Ledisi also returns to sing vocals on “The World Keeps Going Around.” She had provided her singing on the hit “Let’s Get Started” from It’s On Tonight, three years prior.
3. Come On Up (2003)
Come On Up also prominently features Culbertson’s distinct jazz and groove sound.
On my third most-liked album of his, you’ll hear several upbeat songs. Within these songs are various sounds from the Hammond B3 Organ, Wurlitzer, Clavinet, and Rhodes keyboards, which is essential to Culbe’s old-school jam. These feel-good songs make me imagine Culbe throwing a party with the musicians on this album, like Steve Cole, Rick Braun, Marcus Miller, and Norman Brown.
The second track titled “Say What” really sets the tone for the funk and groove jam throughout the rest of the record. The track features Steve Cole on the sax. Culbe follows Cole’s solo with his own improv before resuming the upbeat melody of the track.
Other songs of similar moods I like are “Playin’,” “Midnight,” and the title cut, “Come On Up,” with Brown on guitar.
“Fly High” also falls in line with the groove of this album, but this song’s mood is different. To me, the track sounds slightly depressing and confusing. Rashaan Patterson sings “Fly high up and away from this tainted world,” which I connote as sad lyrics. But, at the same time, Culbe’s playing of the keys along with the words sound quite opposite of the dark and somber. That’s why I feel conflicted as to whether I like the track or not. It’s quite bizarre, but something about this song sounds oddly pleasing to me.
Balancing out the album’s flow are a few slow tracks. “Last Night” is one I fondly like. Accompanying Culbe’s melancholy piano melody is Braun with a trumpet solo. I would listen to this track often on my mp3 player whenever I walked around my college campus four years ago to try to help calm myself down on rough days.
Another feature of this CD album I like is Culbe’s use of three brief tracks — the intro, one interlude, and the outro.
“Intro” starts off the album with the sounds of what seems like a party or the nightlife. This track leads into the tone-setting “Say What.”
Then, the track “What Up B?” functions as an interlude between the softer “Days Gone By” and Culbe’s cover of “Serpentine Fire,” originally by Earth, Wind, and Fire. Just like in the interlude, Culbe lays down some great blows from his trombone in the outro, titled “Funky B.”
I am very fond of these transitions. While I may not know much about music composition, I feel that these brief tracks give the album great balance between the two tracks around it and others that have different tempos and moods.
4. After Hours (1996)
To me, After Hours is a underrated album by Culbertson. Despite the lacking of hits, the album is literally a hidden treasure of songs that exemplify the core to Culbe’s sound and smooth jazz. The album also shows how well he can write and play slower and soothing songs.
Allow your ears to catch his case in the title cut “After Hours.” I consider this a prelude to his future funk and groove sounding tracks that come later in his career.
My favorite track on this album in the first one, titled “Take Your Time.”
Then, Steve Finckle plays the sax to reinforce Culbe’s melody on “Close To You.”
Also, check out “And The Night Comes,” and “Daydreams.”
While After Hours may not be one of his popular recordings, Culbertson produced enough interesting pieces to make this sound very solid.
5. Secrets (1997)
It was hard, but somehow I listed Secrets right at No. 5. The CD album clearly stands out as the breakthrough for Culbertson’s discography and chart success. This 1997 release is also the first one of his to feature a supporting cast of known session musicians. On select songs in this recording, you’ll hear Gerald Albright on sax, Jeff Golub and Paul Jackson, Jr., on guitars, Lenny Castro on percussion, and Paul Brown on additional keyboards.
“So Good” and “On My Mind” initiate this album. (“On My Mind” is my favorite on this album.) These two hits also are familiar pieces Culbe plays at his many shows throughout the year.
After checking out the two hits and “Backstreet,” you’ll want to also hear “You’re The One.” This penultimate track is one of the great slow tracks by Culbe.
6. XII (2010)
Culbertson aptly named his twelfth CD recording with the roman numerical symbol, XII. This album features a number of songs I have enjoyed over the past six years.
One such song is “It’s Time.” Culbe released a funny music video to accompany this playful tune. For me, the song and its video seems so lighthearted it could turn a bad mood upside down for a moment.
“That’s Life” is another track I thoroughly enjoy. Earl Klugh, a Sirius XM Watercolors Hall of Fame inductee, joins Culbe to lay down some great acoustic guitar. Because of the duo’s collaboration, the track won the 2011 Oasis Smooth Jazz Best Song of the Year Award.
Another must-hear track is “Stay Wit It.” Steve Lu helped write the nasty funk track that Culbe plays his piano melody to.
Two other tracks on this album defy typical sounds of smooth jazz. One of them is “Forever,” which Sheldon Reynolds helped Culbe write. The other is “I Don’t Know,” which features The Floacist (also known as Natalie Stewart from English R&B duo Floetry).
While these songs feature Culbe’s piano, they both, at least to me, sound like they include elements of new age and light rock. I also feel these songs feel like they have more serious moods to them than the feel-good songs I mentioned above.
In addition to the instrumentals, this album earns my nod for No. 6 for its vocalists.
One vocalist that stands out to me as very powerful is Faith Evans on “Don’t U Know Me By Now.”
Don’t forget to check out the singing by the following:
• Kenny Lattimore on “Another Love”
• Avant on “Skies Wide Open”
• Brian McKnight on “Out On The Floor“
• Ray Parker, Jr., on “I Wanna Love You“
♦ See the rest of my rankings, albums 7 through 12, of Brian Culbertson’s discography linked below. ♦
♦ Here is how I have made these rankings:
• First, I have excluded three of Culbertson’s 15 CD albums.
• Live From The Inside (2008) and Brian Culbertson Live – 20th Anniversary Tour (2014) are both compilation albums. This means that most of the songs are renditions from Culbe’s discography. Nevertheless, the songs “Go” and “Think Free” are two great pieces he co-wrote with Sheldon Reynolds.
• His Soulful Christmas (2006) album I also excluded because you can really only listen to the CD appropriately during one season of the year.
• Finally, I did not include his Breathe – Piano for Relaxation, which was recently released. This album is currently available, exclusively, for digital download.
• Secondly, I ranked each album based on music quality and concept. 1 through 5, I thought really exemplified Culbertson’s signature sound of jazz, R&B, and funk throughout his discography. As I said, ranking all his CDs was really hard because all of his music sounds great and well-arranged.