Malcolm X Abram: Jazz is breaking out all over Northeast Ohio

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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BWB (from left) Norman Brown, Kirk Whalum and Rick Braun. (Lori Stoll)

Lovers of smooth jazz, R&B and Michael Jackson (smooth Jacko?) will be in smooth hog heaven Saturday when a supergroup of the genre, BWB, performs at Akron Civic Theatre with special guest singer Lalah Hathaway.

Besides offering an evening of toe-tapping grooves, proceeds from the event will benefit the Akron General Heart and Vascular Center.

BWB features trumpeter/flugelhornist Rick Braun, Grammy-winning guitarist Norman Brown and Grammy-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum, who as solo artists are all quite successful and popular.

The trio released its debut album, Groovin’, in 2002 featuring simmering versions of popular R&B and soul-jazz tunes by D’Angelo, Booker T. & the M.G.s and Curtis Mayfield and made the Top Contemporary Jazz Albums Top 5. Eight years later, the three carved out time in their busy schedule to team up again for BWB’s recently released second album — Human Nature (released on Cleveland-based Heads Up International) — a collection of tunes by Michael Jackson, ranging from his days fronting the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons through his massive solo albums.

Michael Jackson’s music and jazz musicians aren’t strangers. The master Miles Davis recorded Human Nature and other artists such as Chico Freeman, Brazil’s Caetano Veloso, George Benson and Grover Washington Jr. — one of the founding fathers of the smooth and contemporary jazz genre — have taken on an MJ song or two.

To its credit, BWB takes several of these well-known songs and personalizes them a bit without totally recasting or deconstructing them.

For the Jackson 5’s Who’s Lovin’ You, the trio explores the song’s blues roots with a proper slow-crawling juke-joint reading, while Beat It takes on a surprising light-ska groove. The Jacksons’ Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) is transformed from a slick, disco groove into a Latin-jazz workout, and the Stevie Wonder-penned I Can’t Help It, already quite jazzy melodically and harmonically, gets a relaxed and rather sexy seven-minute waltz-time arrangement.

Special guest singer Lalah Hathaway, the daughter of legendary singer/songwriter Donny Hathaway, first stepped out of her daddy’s musical shadow in 1990 with her eponymously titled debut featuring the Top 5 R&B hit Heaven Knows. Since then, Hathaway, who has a distinctive voice (a honeyed alto that often recalls her father), has released five albums of “Quiet-Storm”-ready adult-contemporary R&B. She is also a go-to guest vocalist for smooth jazz artists such as Grover Washington Jr., saxophonist Gerald Albright and contemporary jazz “it boy” Robert Glasper.

More jazz at Pub Bricco

Earlier this year, Pub Bricco in Merriman Valley began hosting live music on Wednesday nights with a focus on local jazz artists.

Now Pub Bricco is expanding its live music slate to Friday and Saturday nights beginning Friday with pianist/singer Kyle Magilavy followed on Saturday by Sammy DeLeon y su Orchestra featuring Cleveland’s Queen of Salsa, pianist Jackie Warren.

California Guitar Trio

Also, Nighttown in Cleveland Heights will welcome back the California Guitar Trio featuring three dudes not from California. The trio of Paul Richards of Salt Lake City, Bert Lams of Affligem, Belgium, and Hideyo Moriya of Tokyo have been around since 1991 and were three-year members of Robert Fripp’s the League of Crafty Guitarists.

The trio’s repertoire varies from its complex progressive originals and classical tunes to interesting covers including Bohemian Rhapsody and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and a fun arrangement that mashes the Stan Jones-composed, much-covered (Ghost) Riders in the Sky with the Doors’ Riders on the Storm. Hey, fun fact: the Doors classic was partially inspired by (Ghost) Riders in the Sky.

Billy Cobham at Tangier

Keeping with the jazz/fusion theme, on Sunday, Tangier will welcome back jazz/fusion drum legend Billy Cobham with his “Spectrum 40” band marking four decades since his debut solo album Spectrum was released.

Besides his own storied catalog and being a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham’s resume as a sideman is ridiculous with music legends including Mose Allison, George Benson, James Brown, Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, Quincy Jones and more.

The Panamanian-born, New York-raised Cobham released a live album, Compass Point, in June. He’s bringing an ace band featuring pianist/keyboardist Gary Husband, guitarist Dean Brown and bassist Ric Fierabracci. It’s a fiery quartet driven by the 69-year-old drummer’s mix of considerable power, amazing dexterity and, of course, groove. The band can alternate between big, screaming arena-fusion rock or gentle classics and ballads all on a dime.

There should be plenty of University of Akron jazz students in the house sitting around with their mouths agape.

Junior Brown in Akron

On Friday, Junior Brown will be at Tangier. He isn’t jazz, though he does dip occasionally into the jazz bag, but he is a virtuoso on the “guit-steel,” a hybrid double-neck contraption with a guitar on top and a modified lap steel on the bottom designed by Brown.

Brown’s been recording since the early ’90s unleashing his mix of Western swing, honky-tonk and old-school country with a dollop of his playful sense of humor. Brown released an EP in 2012 called Volume 10, a relatively low-key offering from the often fire-fingered guitarist, that featured his classic country baritone and geetar pickin’ on fun songs such as Hang Up and Drive, the jazzy Apathy Waltz, the bluesy shuffle Trust Me, and the lone instrumental Almost To Tulsa.

Opening for Brown will be local blues-rock outfit and Northeast Ohio Blues Association winners the Juke Hounds, who will be competing at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis early next year.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.

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