Brian Culbertson at the Pizza Express Jazz Club

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The Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, is one of London’s smaller live music venues, but by far one of its most prized, consistently booking many of the biggest bands and solo artists from the jazz and smooth jazz scene.

Tonight is the penultimate show by Illinois born Brian Culbertson, award-winning smooth jazz pianist and multi-instrumentalist, who hits the Soho stage with full force, performing eleven shows in nine days. Along side Culbertson is Derek Nash (saxophone), Otto Williams (bass), Mark Jaimes of Simply Red fame (guitar), Neil Angilley additional keyboards) and Culbertson’s personal drummer from Chicago, Chris Miskel.

Culbertson is known for his electric live performances and as the show opens it is clear that although nine shows in, tonight is no exception. The opening track Always Remember is taken from the Bringing back the Funk album (2008) and kick starts the show with explosive instrumentals, notably from Nash. The audience match this energy with applause as Culbertson appears, leading the way on both keyboard and trombone, setting the audience in the intimate venue on an energetic jazz-funk course.

It’s clear from the start that Culbertson’s musical talent spans not only different instruments but also but genres. The funk sound gives way slightly smooth and up beat sound of That’s Life, originally written in collaboration with legendary smooth jazz guitarist Earl Klugh on the album XII (2010). Culbertson is a true entertainer on the keys, effortlessly showcasing of the full range of both his own skill and the potential of his instrument.

Fully absorbed into the electric jazz-funk fusion world the sound changes again. Culbertson invites us to close our eyes and explore the fantasy realm of Dreams (2012), his stunning thirteenth album. The funky sax section and punchy guitar and bass morph seamlessly into a lulling, otherworldly synth sound, slowing the pace. The smooth R&B/jazz arrangement is lead by, as the title rightly suggests, dreamy, flickering keys. When you learn of the team of collaborators who were involve din the process of producing the latest album it is no wonder the sound achieved is so breathtaking. The line-up up includes some of R&B’s biggest names, such as producer Rex Rideout, top session musicians including bassist Alex Al, guitarists Michael Thompson, Rob Bacon and John Jubu Smith, who between them have worked along side big names including Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones, Whitney Huston, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Beyonce.

The intimacy of a venue where the tables almost overlap a low rise stage lends itself well to this genre of funked up easy listening and Culbertson engages well with his audience (especially as it is his tenth one this week). The show picks up pace again with a cover of Serpentine Fire by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Attention must be paid again to the other musicians who join Culbertson on stage, each of whom capture the audience with high energy individual performances, especially a remarkable solo from drummer Chris Miskel

As show draws to an end we are treated once more to the new material with a medley from the new album, including the title cut Dreams, which as you would imagine, is a beautiful track on the album and translates perfectly to the intimate stage at the Jazz Club. And that is the concept behind the new album, a slowed down, brilliantly performed and produced catalogue of beautiful tracks to be listened to “with someone special.”

Culbertson and his band never fail to disappoint, putting on an exciting, high-class, high voltage musical showcase, definitely a must see when they return next year.

Author: Rachel Hannah

Rachel is a music correspondant for Performance Reviewed. She enjoys seeking out the best live acts from intimate local ciruits to stadium fillers and everything else in between.