Album Review: BWB – Human Nature

This review first appeared in the November 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

BWB

bwb

HUMAN NATURE – Heads Up Records HUI-34356-02 www.concordmusicgroup.com  Another Part of Me; Billie Jean; Human Nature; Beat It; Who’s Lovin’ You; She’s Out of My Life; Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground); The Way You Make Me Feel; I Can’t Help It; I’ll Be There; Man in the Mirror

PERSONNEL: Rick Braun, trumpet, flugelhorn, valve trombone; Kirk Whalum, tenor saxophone, flute; Norman Brown, guitar; Braylon Lacy, bass guitar; Khari Parker, drums; John Stoddart, keyboards, background vocals; Lenny Castro, percussion; Ralph Lofton, Hammond B-3 organ; Sheléa – vocals

By Curtis Davenport

BWB is a contemporary jazz supergroup, composed of three of the genre’s most celebrated artists – Rick Braun, on trumpet; Kirk Whalum on tenor sax and guitarist Norman Brown.  They first came together in 2002 to record Groovin’; an inspired album of “smooth jazz” covers of R&B classics.  That album was elevated above most similar fare because of the strong arrangements and the playing of the leaders who were totally invested in the project. The world tour that they embarked on in support of that first album whet everyone’s appetite for more from BWB.

However, over the last eleven years, Braun, Whalum and Brown have been quite busy with their individual careers and projects, so as successful as Groovin’ was; they had not found an opportunity to record a follow-up session until now. Human Nature, their new disc is another cover album, a tribute to the music written by and associated with the late pop legend, Michael Jackson.

Braun came up with the concept and he and his musical partners went through the massive Jackson songbook, stretching back from the Jackson Five through his latter days when he became the self-proclaimed “King of Pop”. Each of the trio picked their favorites and then proceeded to try to put their personal stamp on their selections. The songs chosen include a couple from the old J5 catalog but most of the rest come from Jackson’s most famous trio of albums – Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad. Personally, I would have liked to see them take a crack at some of material from Michael and his brother’s “transitional” period in the mid ‘70’s when they worked with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Much of the material from then would have great jazz potential (“Show You the Way to Go” and “Find Me a Girl” immediately come to mind). Also there was some great material for jazz covers on Dangerous (I still remember Clark Terry’s surprisingly good version of “Remember the Time”). But BWB chose to stick with the hits for the most part and they did come up with some interesting reimaginings.

Most effective of these were “Beat It” which they’ve recast with a driving ska beat, over which each of the principles takes a nice solo turn; “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” which has been given a Latin-pop treatment over which Norman Brown cooks with some of his trademark Benson influenced guitar lines; “Another Part of Me”, which is played pretty straight but it’s such a naturally infectious groove that it couldn’t miss; and then there’s “Billie Jean”, with that iconic bassline. Braun contended in a recent interview that Miles Davis’ “Milestones” could be played over that same bassline. I admit that I scoffed when I first heard that statement. Then BWB goes out and proves it by breaking full on into “Milestones” as they trade fours during the last thirty seconds of “Billie Jean”. I’ll be damned, Braun was right! I wish that they had developed that version of “Milestones” into a full-fledged track. It would’ve been very interesting. Perhaps they will on a future BWB project.

The standout track however is “Who’s Lovin’ You”, a song written by Smokey Robinson, which appeared on the J5’s first album in 1969. It was the “B” side of the group’s first hit, “I Want You Back” but it took on a life of its own, based on Michael’s incredible vocal performance (at age 11, he owned that song like someone 30 years older).  It’s a blues drenched tune to begin with and so BWB just take it where it always wanted to go; to an urban juke joint.  Braun and Brown have nice, brief solo turns but this one belongs to Whalum and his Texas Tenor. Whalum feels every note and so do we, with Ralph Lofton’s organ pushing him, as his horn “sings” the song the way Michael did over 40 years ago.

Human Nature is solidly produced and well-played. It’s good to have BWB back on the scene as a group. Hopefully they will develop some of the good ideas that were hinted at here, on projects together in the near future.

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