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I’ve got to admit: I honestly believed that if you were to begin to tell me about a new smooth jazz supergroup, or about their new album consisting of cover versions of familiar tunes, few people if any could run away faster than me.
bwb consists of contemporary jazz cats Rick Braun (trumpet), Kirk Whalum (saxophones), and Norman Brown (guitar), who collectively honor the lush jazz-pop-R&B sound of Creed Taylor’s 1970s projects with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, guitarist George Benson, and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine for Taylor’s CTI label. Nearly all of those projects included jazz translations of contemporary pop hits by Taylor, Don Sebesky, or other arrangers (Benson’s album White Rabbit, for example). “It was all about having fun and being funky,” says Whalum, who first met Braun at rehearsals for the 1999 Montreux jazz festival. “The throwback to the CTI era was an obvious thread throughout, and we really rose to the challenge.”
“Those CTI days were all about capturing a certain energy and a unique ensembling of players,” Braun adds, “Doing some new material while making well known songs come to life once again.”
Each principal gets plenty of spotlight: Brown whips out his baddest Benson burner to light up “Ruby Baby” (The Drifters) with a mid-song solo, then he flat-out testifies to drive “A Woman's Worth” (Alicia Keys) to climax. Braun updates Freddie Hubbard’s “Povo” and pencils blue shades into “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (Cannonball Adderley). Whalum seems to take all the vocal melody lines, which he renders throughout like a silky soul singer.
Just as importantly, serious props to their rhythm section, especially bassist Christian McBride, who nails down the floor with drummer Gregory Hutchinson so that bwb can languidly dance and shimmy upon it. McBride does so much more than just help keep time: He’s a one-man taffy pull with his elastic licks in “Groovin’” (The Rascals), “It’s Your Thing” (Isley Brothers) and “Brown Sugar” (D’Angelo); his “Povo” solo honors Ron Carter, the bassist who appeared on the original on Hubbard’s CTI project Sky Dive.
These guys pick some great tunes and swing hard through nifty arrangements, all presented in a package that’s produced to sound great. There is little if any room to find fault with either this idea or its execution.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.